Dunedin is a haven for a group of artists drawn to the city by cheap space that affords them more time to create.
If you ignore the annual Hyde St keg party where costumed party-goers collapsed an entire roof in 2012, Dunedin is a powerfully poetical place. The small city at the bottom of the world lures artists in and they’re not here for the “Scarfie experience.”
Some of New Zealand’s great painters like Ralph Hotere, Jeffrey Harris, Frances Hodgkins and Colin McCahon have settled here at different points in time. Writers and poets who are studied in schools, like Janet Frame and James K Baxter, were born and raised here. World renowned musicians, particularly those from the Flying Nun era, wrote and recorded albums here.
But now, why bother?
Dunedin is cheap. The cost of living and renting a studio space here is unlike any other city in New Zealand. Compare the average house price in Auckland, which is more than $1 million in popular areas, to Dunedin, which is just under $300,000. Weekly rent for one bedroom in Auckland is between $165 and $385. In Dunedin it’s about $110 and $210. The average time and costs spent in transport in Auckland is also far greater than those in Dunedin.
These contrasts translate into markedly different opportunities.
When fashion designer Jack Hill began looking for a new space after graduating from Massey University in Wellington, he was astonished by the costs and space size of studio spaces in Dunedin. “It’s incomparable to anywhere else in the country.”
Dunedin’s main - and practically only - shopping street is George St. The street starts from the Octagon, which is the polyganic centre for Dunedin’s rowdy nightlife and also, as somewhat of a cultural contrast, the Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Baroque town hall and the Gothic style St Paul’s Cathedral. It ends in student flats signposted by a littering of empty beer cans and a lingering dampness.
Half a year ago, above an optometrist’s store on George St, Hill set up his shop and a manufacturing space fitted with sewing machines sourced from a Christchurch prison. Well aware of the high rents of other cities, Hill doesn’t see himself moving anytime soon.
Ella Harrington-Knapton is similarly attached. She is dressed in black – a fashion uniform for the well-informed Dunedin creative. Her style, as well as her greyscale ink and watercolour works that hang in her studio, reflect the surrounding environment beyond the windows: gloomy and layered.
When Harrington-Knapton graduated from Dunedin School of Art in 2014 she received the Feldspar Award, which set her up for one year in a studio space amongst a maze of other studios in a large wooden building on Dowling St. Although her studio leaked and part of its ceiling is a sheet of plastic, Harrington-Knapton was grateful for her time there and thrilled for its new resident.
The studio is well located. Dowling St is somewhat of an art precinct despite it being just a short street known by most non-art people for its Les Mills gym. It is home to several staple Dunedin galleries, including Blue Oyster Project Space, which engages many local boundary-pushing artists and art school undergraduates; and Brett McDowell, which shows a mixture of established New Zealand artists like Billy Apple and Laurence Aberhart and emerging artists, like Kushana Bush and Suji Park.
The initial advantages of low rent unfold into a myriad of other benefits for artists. They can spend less time working irrelevant jobs and more time on their art. It also allows artists to go far and wide in order to collect ideas to take back to their nests to digest and craft.
A career and a life don’t necessarily go together too well. I think a lot of Dunedin people understand that.
Emma Chalmers smiles constantly when she talks. She seems at home in her tiny studio in Allbell Chambers, which is a two-second walk from the Octagon. Chalmers grew up in a small rural town called Garston but she moved to Dunedin to go to art school. Just recently Chalmers returned here from a trip to Italy and Morocco where her and a friend drove around, stopping on the side of the road whenever they wanted to make something inspired by the surrounding environment.
Although Chalmers loved this experience (she has maintained a connection to Italy ever since she went on exchange there for a year), it was only once she returned to her Dunedin base that she could organise and develop ideas that formed during her adventure.
Another strong drawcard to Dunedin is its close and supportive artists communities. Artist, filmmaker and musician, Kim Pieters feels older now, she doesn’t go out as much as she did when she first moved here 22 years ago. But she talks affectionately, if slightly cryptically, of Dunedin’s isolation and also of the advice and conversation its tight-knit artist communities provide for artists.
Pieters works in Dunedin’s industrial wharf area, up a dusty staircase and through a hidden door at the end of a dark room filled with stored wood and building tools. She has taped bright colours over the high up broken windows, which gives the crowded space a cheerful yellow tinge. The space’s charm, its oddities, the threat of freezing there on a bad day, encapsulates Dunedin’s character.
“We’re all poor, we live in funny old places at the back of studios”, Pieters says of Dunedin’s distinctively quirky, often impoverished creative communities. “There’s no paid work here, it’s basically a welfare state. Thank God for the welfare state!”
Even if low costs are the initial reason artists move to Dunedin, it seems that the enticing pairing of isolation and strong artist communities are why they stay.
There’s no paid work here, it’s basically a welfare state. Thank God for the welfare state!
Dudley Benson, a composer, producer and performer, is a newer member of this artist community – he only moved here five years ago. But after turning up to a few gallery openings and joining an experimental vocal group who sung over muted David Attenborough documentaries he felt embraced by the community.
Benson’s 1896 villa is in the alternative and working class suburb, North East Valley. Out the back he has an outside-laundry-turned-compact-studio and new garden, which had to be resurrected from the wasteland its previous, elderly owner left it in. This set up would have been impossible when he lived in Auckland, he says.
Through Benson’s growing relationships with artists and musicians in Dunedin he noticed a “fascinating” and unique emphasis on creating work but perhaps never sharing it – something that he felt contrasted heavily with Auckland where the delivery of work was crucial.
“I know people ... who will spend two years making a record that they might press five copies and give it to you if you ask... But I have learnt from those Dunedin people who hibernate and create for themselves.”
So, why would anyone leave Dunedin and its motley, nurturing communities? After thinking carefully, Pieters replies: “Well, if you want a career, perhaps you should leave. But if you want a life, I think you should stay! A career and a life don’t necessarily go together too well. I think a lot of Dunedin people understand that.”
Another reason people leave is a curiosity for elsewhere, for the unknown. “We’re always looking over the sea” says Pieters. When Pieters left New Zealand for Australia many years ago she was sure she was never going to return. But overseas Pieters had an existential awakening. She was surprised by how different the nuances were in Australia and realised she needed to reassess what it meant to be in New Zealand.
Many others who have left the nest, starry-eyed in order to pursue a future overseas, have often ended up returning out of necessity.
“The overwhelming need to pay rent and bills and things like that has often got on top of them and they’ve realised they haven’t had the time to be able to make so they’ve been drawn back to Dunedin for that,” says Chalmers.
This content is brought to you with funding assistance from NZ On Air.
Story produced by Loulou Callister-Baker.
Video filmed and edited by John Bollen.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Dudley Benson lived in a villa built in 1986. It was, in fact built in 1896.