More thoughtful, popular arts building plans needed

It's good to see that Marilynn Webb, a distinguished senior artist in our midst, has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Otago, acknowledging her achievement as an artist and also as an art teacher.

The latter is a difficult role. You can't teach people to be creative and the history books are full of tales of great practitioners who never went to art school or who did and dropped out because they found the process stifling.

I don't buy into the theory that art schools crush creative talent. Your true creative will always find a way to flourish. But it's certainly true that a lot of what happens in art schools is not particularly productive.

For that reason I was happy to attend Prof Leoni Schmidt's public address because she is the head of our art school, which is productive, and the institution has been under attack.

The address was serious but the occasion light-hearted because the power went off in the middle. Prof Schmidt took it in her stride and soon resumed her address, which was upbeat.

She described the operation of the school and her own objectives and informed us an endowment fund is being established.

This is good because our school teaches hands-on practices, such as the print-making long conducted by Marilynn Webb, which is expensive compared with book-based teaching, but invaluable for people wishing to facilitate their self-expression.

It is this which makes our school expensive to run but it's also what makes it exceptional. Most of the other New Zealand schools are book-bound. While they are cheaper to operate I think they are not so helpful to aspiring artists.

The Dunedin school's record speaks for itself. But its administrators in the Otago Polytechnic have been trying to save money and decided to disestablish jobs.

It wasn't very smart and Prof Schmidt was too diplomatic to say so. But an endowment fund is a way to make it up. I hope it attracts plenty of dollars.

The polytechnic has also announced a capital plan which envisages demolishing the old buildings the art school uses on the corner of Albany St and Anzac Ave. One wonders if any of the people involved in that decision know what the buildings are, or were.

By contrast the university's Options for Future Campus Development shows a much greater awareness of the built environment. In an article the other day I mentioned its obvious practical oversight - the elimination of a through-traffic corridor - but it shows a greater understanding of the existing cityscape and its values.

Among other things it anticipates building two auditoriums across the street from the art school on the site of the long-demolished Albany Street School - John A.

Lee's alma mater. It is now partly occupied by a building formerly used for radio. The university's document has this as part of its east precinct.

The idea is to build a performing arts centre and has the endorsement of the department of music. I also endorse the proposal but would enter two caveats.

First, this doesn't meet the city's need for a mid-size full-facility theatre. That should seat about 800 people while these venues would each accommodate only 200.

Second, they appear both to be conceived as auditoriums, not theatres, so they wouldn't be any good for things like ballet, opera or plays.

What will the university do for a theatre? The proposal has value but isn't going to solve the city's larger problem of providing a mid-sized theatre.

Before the vision's release at least one city councillor suggested that here might be a citizen cost-free solution. Now it is released it's clear this proposal isn't that and we should be under no illusions.

The way to solve the theatre problem is for the city to talk earnestly with Mr Sammy Chin about what it can do to help him upgrade the old His Majesty's and to assist his tenant Sam Carroll.

What we are looking at in both the campus vision and the polytechnic plan are just ideas. They contain good things as well as others which need more thinking. But the city council might also try formulating broad plans as a recent Otago Daily Times article by Chris Skellett pointed out (ODT, 27.5.10).

We've been having another existential moment and yet again wrecking balls seem to be unusually active. That doesn't do us much good. Nor does pressing on with projects without real citizen buy-in. We need more thoughtful and more broadly accepted plans for the future.

For the arts, helping to find ways to support the costs of running a hands-on art school should be included. So should realistic plans for sustaining the heritage building stock. I mentioned the mid-sized theatre. There are other things too.

Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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