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CoCA Toi Moroki - Changing How We Engage With Art Galleries

Romy Willing has serious plans for the city’s longest serving arts organisation, CoCA Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art.   Relocating from Brisbane to take up the position, she has been the Executive Director of CoCA for almost a year and she arrives in Ōtautahi Christchurch with 20 years experience in arts management. 

Previously, Willing led her own consultation company for numerous arts and cultural institutions, providing strategic planning and audience and project development services to government and businesses throughout Australia.  In 2018 she reviewed CoCA’s programme for artists and audiences, and 2019 will see the gallery repositioning its strategies. 

Why the changes and what can we expect to experience?  Willing says that she has talked to many people who acknowledge that when CoCA reopened its programme was very ambitious.  ‘I don’t think that there is anything wrong with wanting to bring national and international shows here, but that is not why people are so dedicated to, and affectionate about, CoCA.  Going all the way back to the Canterbury Society of Arts it was all about supporting Christchurch artists and local contemporary art.  We have now gone back and listened to what people want from CoCA, also being aware that we are in a city that has been redefined.  There are opportunities that have been lost and opportunities to be had.  Where does CoCA sit within all of that?’

‘We have completed our strategic plan and are re-launching our website, being responsive to the needs of Christchurch artists and also audiences and we have changed the programme model.  Previously, an exhibition would take over the whole of the gallery.  We have now divided that up so that we have four different offerings in four different spaces.   We have also launched a moving image programme, starting with Tom Dale in November last year as part of the SCAPE programme.’   

Willing also states that CoCA will seek to capitalise more on its foremost exhibition space, the Mair Gallery. ‘It is just such an incredible and unique space in New Zealand, so voluminous and so vast.  We are taking a view of it as being a bit like The Tate Turbine Hall or Carriage Works.  We want to put large-scale installations in there.’

Complementing the Mair Gallery, other existing spaces will be available for local artists and arts organisations.  ‘There are all these organisations out there like Fiksate and The Corner Store.  But everyone is looking for space.  CoCA is in such a unique position because we have this incredible building and spaces that can be a platform for these organisations to show in a bigger way.   We want to not only be a place to discover new artists, but also to be a platform for groups like The Corner Store or Crux Te Punga and other arts organisations.’

‘We also want to provide more professional development opportunities.  The Auckland Artists’ Alliance has recently closed down and that was the only arts organisation offering professional development workshops and advocacy.  We want to pick up that mantel.   Initially, the focus will be in Christchurch with the capacity to grow beyond that, and it will not just be artists but arts workers as well.   We are introducing a curator programme with guest curators working with and providing opportunities for emerging curators.’

In December 2018, CoCA’s exhibition schedule included its Associates Artists’ Programme.  Established in 2017 as a means of professional development for artists, the Associates 2018 exhibition featured new works by Audrey Baldwin, Mark Soltera, Viv Kepes and Gaby Montejo.  Willing describes the exhibition development as ‘a bit of a Chinese Whispers show.  It started with one piece of work and then the next artist created a response to it, and so it went on.  It really pushed the artists to experiment in their practice.’

‘’We are also looking at the interplay between art, design, technology and craft and introducing a guest-designer programme, getting young designers to design exhibitions, and working with writers and building up our intern programme.  We currently have two curatorial interns, one focused on public programmes and education and one working on a moving images programme.’

‘Changing the way people engage with galleries is also an important part of our new programme.  We have just appointed an Audience Engagement Manager to develop and deliver participatory arts experiences that authentically engage audiences with our exhibitions and the wider arts sector.

Our strategic plan for 2019 is strongly focused on our core mission of presenting and cultivating contemporary art and connecting audiences with the artists and art of our time.  We see our exhibitions as a platform to bring people in for events and public programmes.  And there are also other ways to engage people, less passive and more active, taking what is inside CoCA out into the community - That will also bring people back in.’

CoCA Toi Moroki in 2019 - An interview with Executive Director Romy Willing

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