HISTORY OF ARTWORKS THEATRE


IMAGES FROM THE PAST – click on an image to enlarge

ARTICLE FROM THE WEEKENDER (5 January 2012)

It was twenty years ago – on Boxing Day 1991 – that the Artworks Centre on the corner of Oceanview Road and Korora Road was formally declared open and it has served the Waiheke community well ever since.

Prior to Artworks, the main opportunity for the community to come together to display and show their support for local arts was the Oneroa Arts Fair during which local artists and artisans could exhibit their works in shops and restaurants around the town for a few weeks each year.

When the Mitre 10 store moved to new premises in Ostend (now Placemakers) in 1990, a local restaurateur, Bob Fill, put forward the idea of a permanent community arts centre on the site. Bob’s concept was of a working arts centre, a place where people could visit to see arts and crafts actually being created. The name ‘Artworks’ was chosen to encapsulate this idea.

George Hudson (chairman of Fullers at the time) was soon persuaded to add his support and, along with Brian Walker, Olly Newbegin and Julia Meek formed a group which completed a feasibility study in October 1990. Tony Pope, the site owner, later joined them. Soon after, Bob was appointed as the first manager to run the Trust and seek funding.

1990 was a transitional year in which there was a temporary Craft Shop and various events, such as an art auction, were held to raise funds on site. Over that Labour Weekend, forty craft workers participated in a highly successful Craft Fair. That was followed by a poetry book launch and on 10 December an Art Gallery opened with an exhibition by local artists.

But the site was still basically a vacated DIY store and builder’s yard and needed to be converted. Fund-raising started in earnest in June and $25,000 was pledged within a month. By September that became $50,000, and by October $120,000. Work started on converting the wood-racks into studios for five craft-workers and closing the front of the woodshed to make it into a theatre. The main building on Korora Road was adapted for the art gallery (where Whittakers is now), an outdoor café (roughly where Ajadz is now) and six more retail studios upstairs (where the Gallery is now). Work was also undertaken to make a more attractive frontage.

Boxing Day 1991 marked the start of the Artworks Opening Festival, which continued until 12 January with a programme running every day from 10 am until 10 pm. In addition to the permanent residents, there was a special daily programme which included lunchtime theatre at 1 pm, children’s activities from 2 pm, an outdoor concert from 4 until 6, dinner theatre starting at 6 pm, and a dance, movie or concert from 8 pm. The Festival ended with a Barn Dance on 12th January which on its own raised $8,100.

While visitor numbers were initially quite small, they soon picked up and a letter to Gulf News on 17 January 1991 summed up the sense of communal achievement. “Congratulations Artworks. You did it.”

The craft studios were soon fully occupied. ‘Henry Leather’ was the first to move in, quickly followed by Wayne Tasker (pottery), Wendy Bennett (fabric printing), Jackie O’Brien and Jane Spiers (photography and ceramics) and a craft co-operative run by Lynne Stewart and Leonie Arnold. Many of these went on to run training courses for young Waihekians with funding from the Employment Training Scheme.

The Theatre opened on 2 January with a group called the ‘Us Theatre Company staging a lunchtime performance of ‘A Chat with Mrs Chicky’ which was written in 1910 and originally performed by suffragettes to promote votes for women. The actors experienced some difficulty when they found that the changing rooms had no electricity (not connected until 6 January). Also the Theatre had no chairs, so the audience were invited to buy a $10 plastic barbeque chair for the performance and leave it behind afterwards. This ‘temporary’ seating remained until 2008.

Refreshments were provided by Maria Haesli’s ‘Top Nosh’ café which moved to Artworks from Rocky Bay for the opening. Two coaches of visitors to the island would stop at the new Artworks every day, and Maria estimated that 80% of the café’s trade came from visitors.

The pace hardly slowed once the opening festival was over. There was a Jazz Cabaret followed by a visiting drama group (the ‘TO’ Theatre) and a Julie Felix concert. Meanwhile local artists got themselves organised. Forty attended a meeting which led to regular fortnightly exhibitions. David Paquette organise the very first Waiheke Jazz Festival at the site which attracted over 900 people over Easter 1992. This was followed by a Topp Twins concert in July.

In April the public library, which had been located in the current CAB building in Oneroa, moved to its present site downstairs at Artworks. Soon after an Information Centre was opened.

From the start the centre was run by the Waiheke Island Community Artworks Charitable Trust, to give it its full name. It rented the property, which comprised the buildings and courtyard and also 4 Korora Road (known as the “whitehouse”). The Trust found it difficult to raise money as a tenant so it purchased the two sites for $715,000 in 1992, well below the valuation. The Trust, rather optimistically perhaps, said that it aimed to be self-supporting by the end of 1992.

That didn’t happen, and the obvious enthusiasm of the early pioneers was not matched by close attention to their financial situation. The Trust ran at a loss and by 1995 major drainage work was required. Losses continued to mount up, resulting in ever more loans against the property. The Trust found it had a “liquidity problem” and major difficulties – “particularly the inability to obtain repetitive funding”.

The Board’s aims were to run the property “for the benefit of the community – with the emphasis being on the encouragement of smaller and developing businesses”, adding that it “does not strive for a purely commercial return on the property”. In fact the centre survived only by generous donations from a small number of individuals and companies.

Drama of various kinds flourished and in 1993 the Waiheke Choral Society began running their annual show at the theatre, starting with ”American Accent’ and followed by ‘Trial by Jury’ (1994); ‘HMS Pinafore’ (1995); ‘The Mikado’ (1996), and ‘Oklahoma’ (1997) which was also transported (cast and set) to Great Barrier Island for one extra show.

In 1995, the Theatre and the Gallery formed their own organisations separate from the Trust. On 15 June a meeting voted to set up an Incorporated Society to lease part of the premises from the Trust to establish a Community Art Gallery. A Waiheke Young Artists Exhibition was held followed by the first exhibition staged by the newly formed Waiheke Community Art Gallery: “Ten Years After”, a look back at the sinking of the “Rainbow Warrior”. In August there was an exhibition of works by Jan Nigro. A Waiheke Art Award was founded and a series of ceramics courses began in the “whitehouse” run by Ray Ericson.

By March 1996 Artworks was flourishing as a community arts centre with a total of 19 tenants: Microlight Photography; Wildflower; Franz Treasure; Henry Leather; Craft; Bell South; Church Bay; Gallery; dwelling; Library; Music Museum; Jigsaw; Troopers Café; Waiheke Worx; Waiheke Coach Co; Oodles; Dive; Harry’s Books; Cinema/Theatre.

Four years later, in April 2000, there was a major reorganisation with many of the tenants moving to their current locations. The Art Gallery moved upstairs to its current premises, Whittakers Musical Museum moved to the space the gallery vacated, and the Cinema Trust moved into the space that Whittakers vacated. Only two upstairs shops remained, Microlight Photography and Island Arts & Crafts.

Despite its rental income, the Trust still encountered problems funding its upkeep and promotion of Artworks and its financial situation failed to improve. The idea of selling the centre to Auckland City Council was first discussed in August 1997, though it didn’t actually happen for another seven years. In Feb 2004 Auckland City Council finally agreed to purchase the property for $1.25 million. However, by that time outstanding debts amounted to $1,161,798 and when legal and other fees were added the Trust received only $48,858 from the sale.

The Council had been supporting the Gallery and the Theatre as community facilities since 1997 by paying their rent and giving each a $10,000 p.a. operating grant (an amount that has not increased since!). When Council took ownership of the site they first ran the centre as leased premises which, in conjunction with closing the theatre for a year for compliance alterations, led to a decline in activity. Several of the studios became empty and the number of tenants declined.

In 2010, Council finally recognised Artworks as “an arts and cultural centre that serves the local community and reflects Waiheke Island’s unique identity by providing a place for the exchange of ideas and community participation in a range of activities”. At the same time, it started to push ahead with plans for a new Library building and to merge the site with the adjacent church land that it purchased in 2007.

Artworks has always had financial problems as it has never been supported by its local authority in the way that other community arts centres have been. But it has always embodied that strong independent streak so typical of Waiheke. It has survived, often against all the odds.

Today it is home to some great Waiheke community institutions: the Waiheke Community Art Gallery, the Waiheke Community Cinema, Whittakers Music Museum, Waiheke Radio, Artworks Community Theatre, ‘Once upon an Island’ Storytelling Centre, Upcycle, the Waiheke Resources Trust, TimeOut Café and Ajadz Indian Restaurant.

Pay it a visit – it is an important part of the history of this Island.

I would like to acknowledge a number of people who have assisted with this article, particularly Julia Meek, Brian Walker, Michael Pearce and Lynne Stewart.