Interviews
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WWTD: In conversation with Tracey Williams

WW..D? Is a monthly interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are part of the create community in New Zealand.

This month we spoke to senior arts and culture programme leader from Auckland Council Tracey Williams. Read more for What Would Tracey Do?

How long have you been working for the arts and culture team in Auckland council?

I’ve been working for Auckland Council’s Arts and Culture Unit since January 2011; first as the manager of Papakura Art Gallery and from March 2013 (following a restructure) in my current role as senior arts and culture programme leader.

What does a senior arts and culture programmer do?

My job description says my role is a senior creative position in the curatorial team that develops the strategic regional arts and culture programme in the context of the Auckland Plan, covering all disciplines and audiences, including public art, (within and outside Council’s facilities) and delivery channels (for example, exhibitions, festivals, events, pop up programmes, seminars, classes et al). I have a regional role with a community focus – meaning I hold a regional view and vision, but organise programmes that deliver localised outcomes, within a strategic framework. My duty is to shape content for the Arts and Culture Unit and manage programmes of work within my portfolios. The role involves being aware of the cultural landscape of Auckland and the different players in it, trying to understand what council’s role is in this landscape, and tactically designing programmes with this in mind. As a member of a team that sits within a government organisation that is responsible for infrastructure we have a responsibility to think about our audiences, and delivering to the high-level aspiration of the Auckland Plan: “Arts and Culture integrated into everyday life”. That’s a huge and quite overwhelming task – and also very exciting and challenging, as well as being an enormous obligation (at least I see it that way). I am one of a team of eight and we each have different strengths and specialties, mine being visual arts. Others in my team know a lot about music and theatre – which is important as our team is responsible for designing all the content of all the programmes that council delivers. At the moment I generate programmes for some council arts facilities as well as programmes that are not facility based, like POP, which is a series of place-based temporary public art works. It’s very important to stay current in my field and to develop and maintain good and sustainable relationships with arts organisations and individuals.

Council arts are very much community orientated. How do you make sure the needs of the community are met through our local galleries?

Gosh, this is a big question. ‘Community’ is an often-used word, but not often thought through. It’s quite a utopic phrase also. There are many ‘communities’ that live in different areas. And communities also exist that don’t live local to specific areas – for example the ‘arts community’ is spread over Auckland. As are many other communities. In relation to programming, I choose to consider the idea of ‘community’ in terms of local audiences and the many communities associated with that audience. On one hand there are people who have no exposure to the arts or who would not travel to the CBD for these experiences. So I think about what might be of interest to these people and try to bring experiences to them they would otherwise not encounter, to share some of the incredible art and artists we have in this city at a local level. To make art delivered through facilities accessible I have always included a strong public programme to provide tangible ways to engage with what’s on offer. On the other hand, there are keen interests and experiences that are felt at a local level so I try to reflect these back to community through a range of very diverse programming that hopefully taps into different ideas, interests and concerns of different groups at different times, again each exhibition involves a considered public programme to unpack the ideas for people and provide opportunities for engagement. And of course part of the consideration is to provide a way to include local artists and through them reflect aspects of local interests and ideas as well as opportunities to provide avenues for those artists to grow a voice in the cultural landscape of the area and the city they are part of. I have recently been involved in organising a series of non-facility based art interventions which is a new way of connecting people to arts experiences by taking arts to the people rather than excepting people to go to the art. Auckland Council has undergone huge change in the past few years and its taken time to settle into new roles and structures, but I think that we are all getting better at working with our Local Boards, and with our wonderful arts advisors who hold those relationships and are therefore hearing what the needs and desires of local audiences are. And having worked through change we are also forming real relationships within and across other community organisations with which we can collaborate to develop meaningful locally relevant programmes.

What were the thoughts behind the restructure of Artstation, (why)/was the previous structure not working or just time for a change?

Artstation, now Studio One Toi Tū, needed to become sustainable and the way it was operating wasn’t. This involved a review that included talking to a lot of people from current users and stakeholders, to key players in the arts landscape, to people who currently do not use the facility or think it’s relevant to them. The review was an opportunity to think big and consider what role the facility could play in the current Auckland arts landscape. It also involved looking squarely at what that landscape now is, which is entirely different than when Artstation was set up. And it had to be looked at in the context of the Auckland Plan, from which arts and culture (as delivered by Auckland Council) takes its mandate: “arts and culture integrated in to everyday life” – that in this case involved considering ways to make the facility as relevant to local audiences and as inclusive as possible. A range of models was presented to the Waitematā Local Board and after a lot of consideration a new operating model was decided on. (The inauguration of Studio One Toi Tū, Auckland Council’s first creative precinct in the historic 1 Ponsonby Road building, could also be seen as a step toward the formation of a regional network of collaborative, multi-use community spaces.) Studio One Toi Tū has four down-stairs galleries; and multi-use spaces for courses, events and projects, and for general hire. It also has spaces for resident creatives. The changes were necessary for the facility to be viable for the 21st century. But I think it’s important to see the change within the context of the past few years. In 2010 nine smaller local body authorities were merged to form a super city. Then at the start of 2013 the Arts and Culture Unit was realigned to fit this new regional structure, and in the middle of this second change process Artstation was put into review and further changes implemented to address issues unique to the facility. That’s three-and-a-half years of constant transformation for that facility. The changes were thoroughly considered and thought through, and were keenly felt by all those involved in the process. Everyone involved has shown huge resilience and dedication throughout. Meanwhile, the Local Board has demonstrated its commitment to holding on to Artstation (now Studio One Toi Tū) as a community arts facility. And many of the tutors from the past have stayed the distance for which there is huge gratitude and respect. It’s important to acknowledge that change is still being worked through and each step taken to implement the new model and way of working and developing programmes is being reviewed and responded to constantly – everyone involved cares deeply and wants it to work.

Is there a project that you feel has been very successful in engaging the community? or a moment that you feel really proud of?

Recently I have had the privilege of being part of the team that worked on a series of projects called POP (pop.org.nz). This series involved thinking through the concept of “arts and culture integrated into everyday life” – a kind of thinking-by-doing activity that entailed taking art to audiences. A series of nine projects happened over three months, all in the Waitematā Local Board area (as the project was developed with and funded by that Local Board). The projects were all linked by an ‘urban ecology’ curatorial theme and a design platform, POP, which was developed by artist collective called ALT (based in the Waitematā Local Board area). The pilot series included works by visual and performing artists as well as Hīkoi and music. The idea of the first series was about using gardens as a social object to connect places and people. In art terms the projects could all be defined as social sculpture. One of the projects Walking in Trees by Richard Orjis was experienced by 5000 people in ten days. That project involved putting a spiral staircase through the canopy of a Moreton Bay fig tree in Albert Park that people could traverse. People from all walks of life engaged in Walking in Trees: old, young, rich, poor, tourists and residents. For many it was the first ‘art’ experience in their lives. My happy moment was the ninety-year-old couple I met on the bridge in the tree canopy. I feel very excited about continuing to develop POP, where it could go next and what it signals for the way we work as an Arts and Culture Unit within a Local Government organisation and the experiences people consequently get to have, through art, of this incredible city.

If you could own 5 New Zealand artworks, what works would they be?

  1. Star Gossage – Early Spring 2004

  2. Aroha Gossage – Pakiri Awa II & III 2014

  3. Barbara Tuck – Aria moro Karamea 2006

  4. Joyce Campbell – The Thread 2013

  5. John Walsh – Okorohanga Terrace 2002

(This was a really hard choice. I chose five that I feel like right at this moment, but I could do many lists of five. In other lists, in other moments, I’d include works by Saskia Leek, Peata Larkin, Nicola Farquhar, Kate Small, Richard Orjis, Liyen Chong, Mark Adams, Anoushka Akel, Reuben Paterson and Kim Meek.)

When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?

My working life is so busy and so full of ideas and people, which is a state that contrasts my natural introverted condition. Therefore, when I am not at work I am somewhat quiet and very much a homebody. I need time to recharge and process all those ideas and social interactions. I like to read (and get lost in what I am reading) and I like to walk and run, see close friends and family, and pat my cat. I used to make art as a way of processing the world, but as art for me is about ideas and my work includes ideas in spades, I have other ways of processing now like writing and taking simple photographs of quiet and idiosyncratic moments.

What excites you about working in public galleries + the community?

I love working in the public sector, with a specific obligation to local audiences. I am especially honoured by the responsibility this entails, and the unique challenge and opportunity this presents. I love the idea that art, when not driven by commercial outcomes, becomes democratic and opens a window into a space, which is about sharing and engaging people in ideas, and in this way changing and enriching lives. Small galleries located in areas where people might not otherwise be involved in the arts is especially rewarding.

And lastly what advice would you give to young creatives who want to exhibit in public galleries?

Try to get involved in some way; become known to staff and a familiar face by visiting exhibitions and opening events and getting along to public programmes. That way you’ll develop a feel of the temperature of the community, and the way programming decisions are made (and probably make some new friends in the industry). Also, try to understand what the gallery is offering and how it fits into the wider cultural landscape – especially how it positions itself in relation to its local audience. Be very aware of the variances between galleries and the connected and symbiotic but different roles of commercial and public spaces. Attach yourself to the coattails of gallery staff and their programmes by being helpful and engaged (do some writing, help run a workshop, work alongside senior artists etc). If you want to exhibit in the gallery start by suggesting something small that could fit into a project space (e.g. a window or foyer) or be run as an offsite project; or propose a group exhibition that you know, from your research, will fit the kaupapa of the programming focus and deliver locally in a unique and compelling way. And don’t give up if at first you don’t succeed because decisions are rarely personal – they are a complex mix of factors and considerations.

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2 Comments

  1. Hoani says

    This was a really interesting read. Tracey Williams is incredible. I love what she is doing and her korero is pleasing to hear. Ka rawe!

  2. Jess Anderson says

    I echo all Hoani’s comments above. Such heart…. such generosity, such ingenuity and appreciation of others. I loved, among many other things, hearing of the walk in trees and Tracey’s meeting on the spiral stair with the couple in their 90s.
    Jess, London.

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