Cultivating Auckland

Why Doesn’t Our Biggest City Have A More Thriving Cultural Life? 


Listener: 8 September, 2007. 


Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; Literature and Culture; 


Asked the difference between Auckland and yoghurt, Wellingtonians are likely to say that the culture is alive in yoghurt. Saying that Wellington has more classical music, more professional theatre and, on a per capita basis, more opera, they would top the list off with Wellywood and the number of creative writers. They see Auckland as a cultural desert – not a dessert. 


This creates a problem for economists. Being interested in the structure of cities, we would predict that a city like Auckland should have a thriving cultural life. The theory says that a headquarters and gateway city – a global city – has a large number of professional workers who, because of their affluence and interests, generate the audience (and private funding) for a thriving high culture. 


The city need not be a capital – New York is not – but being a capital adds to the number of professional workers and the amount of public funding, which explains much of Wellington’s success. 


Perhaps the comparison is selective. Auckland is the centre for art and fashion and some of Wellington’s success is accidental. Wellywood is there because Peter Jackson spent his childhood in the Embassy Theatre. But more screen production (advertising, film and television) takes place in Auckland. Bill Manhire came back from overseas to settle – perhaps by chance – in Wellington and, eventually, set up our most successful -creative writing school. But more publishing occurs in Auckland. 


Auckland may do better on mass culture. It is the centre of hip-hop – not surprisingly, given that two-thirds of our Pacific peoples live there. So do two-thirds of our Asians. It is the most ethnically diverse of our cities, as one would expect of a gateway city. This potentially exciting mix is only slowly feeding through, as witnessed by such films as Sione’s Wedding. Auckland tends to be stronger in personal art forms – you wear the clothes, you put paintings on your walls – and mass audience ones, such as screen production. Wellington’s strength is in public performance: what people go to. An Auckland businessman told me that he regretted not seeing more theatre. By the time he had driven home from work and put the kids to bed he did not feel like battling the traffic again. This is only one anecdote, but one can’t help wondering whether Auckland’s overloaded roads and under-provided public transport inhibit its cultural growth. 


Those who study the structure of cities know that performance venues are important in networking. They’re not smoke-filled rooms, but places of social interaction. At Wellington performances, busy people often transact minor business – perhaps no more than an exchange of business cards or a “Ring me tomorrow”. This probably happens at, Eden Park, the Northern Club and the Royal Akarana Yacht Club. Perhaps Auckland needs more such venues. That is a second sort of explanation of its cultural weaknesses. 


It used to be said that Auckland was 34 villages connected by a sewage pipe – a reference to the 34 bickering local authorities and the Auckland Regional Council that existed until two decades ago. Now there are only six territorial local authorities and the ARC. While they don’t fight to the same extent, they can find it very hard to make strategic decisions, such as the funding of the Auckland Philharmonia. As Beethoven remarked, it is terrifying how much money you need for music. 


I doubt that this issue will top the agenda of the proposed Royal Commission on Auckland, but if the commission gets the governance framework of the city correct (and we implement it), we may see cultural benefits, including those arising from a better transport network and better co-ordination of public funding. Once local public funding begins, central government funding will follow – with a lag. 


The Wellington joke may be too complacent. Auckland hovers between desert and dessert. With growing affluence and leisure, New Zealand will evolve more “high” and “mass” culture in ways we can but guess. But Auckland’s should evolve faster. If it does not, then the city will not be developing properly. 


<>Culture – high and mass – does not make global cities, but it is integral to them. The cultural deficiencies in Auckland reflect that it is not a global city – not yet.