New Zealand: Auckland Arts Festival

Located on the North Island, Aotearo, Auckland Arts Festival is the region’s biggest celebration of arts and culture. Governed by the Auckland Festival Trust and heading into its sixth edition, the biennial festival presents seminars, concerts, productions and arts exhibitions. In 2011, this spanned 75 events involving 500 artists. The 2013 festival is now underway and will mark the first of three editions led by artistic director Carla van Zon.

‘Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city with approximately 1.5m residents,’ she says. ‘It’s a very multi-cultural city, so we’re creating a programme for its residents – the make-up is 21 per cent Pacific, 20 per cent Asian, 10 per cent Maori and the rest of the habitants are a mixture of European and new immigrants from various cultures.’

The New Zealand festival system allows artistic directors to stay in post for a maximum of three consecutive festivals before moving on, and prior to her installment in Auckland, van Zon was at New Zealand International Arts Festival.

‘In our area most of the festivals are on contract for one or up to three festivals, very few have more than three festivals contracted,’ she explains. ‘There’s a vision you present and you are hired on that vision. My major concern was about engagement with the people of Auckland, engagement with different communities, and also looking at how we can increase and diversify audiences outside of our normal audiences.’

New Zealand artists are invited to submit a proposal to perform at the Auckland festival. Van Zon also travels the world, shopping for work to bring to Auckland – on the day we speak she is in the airport lounge preparing to fly out to a festival in Barcelona, followed by a stop in Avignon, having returned from Singapore Arts Festival in May. Since her appointment in 2011, two-thirds of next year’s programme has been booked.

The festival’s personality is a blend of serious, innovative work alongside events that have a broad appeal. It also offers an accessible ticketing policy that aims to make the festival a celebration for the whole region.  Major events take place all across the city (in West Auckland, the North Shore, and South Auckland and in the centre of the city) as well as site-specific sculptural works installed across the region.

Previous highlights have included a display by pyrotechnic artists Groupe F, theatre by Japanese company Ishinha, and cabaret by La Clique. New Zealand work developed and presented by Auckland Arts Festival includes The Songmaker’s Chair by Albert Wendt, the Michael Parmenter retrospective Commotion, and 2009’s The Arrival, which went on to enjoy international success.

The task of presenting this international festival is made all more challenging by the sheer size of the geographical area to be covered. Auckland is an amalgamation of four cities and territories across a 160km spread. ‘That is quite large when you consider the population size, so we are looking at different ways of engagement – we can’t reach everybody,’ says van Zon.

She has approached this challenge by engaging with arts advisers around the regions, as well as with artists, asking for ideas that will enable the festival to reach more people.

‘We run programmes in the centre of the city, but we also run programmes in different communities around the city. We have an education programme and we work with a visual artist who is visiting different schools. This work will then be displayed in different parts of Auckland – it’s a real goal for us to engage with the local community across different cultures, and the Maori and Pacific and Asian communities in New Zealand.’

Does van Zon think she will be able to achieve her objectives in just three festivals? Isn’t the timeline restrictive?

‘I did three at New Zealand festival. Yes, it’s fantastic, and you establish a profile and a bond with the comm-unity and the festival –  which is all wonderful – but also change is a very good thing. The arts are a reflection of society, we all do this job because we believe in the power of the arts and how can we make the most impact and reach the most people – sometimes change is an absolute necessity and part of it.’

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