“Restructuring”: Job Losses at Elam School of Fine Arts

[Thanks to Natasha Ovely for submitting this guest post.]

Somewhere alongside the white wall studios slapped with half-hearted painterly expressions and littered with lewd, lazy structures, lie a set of workshops brimming with activity that beckon the golden years of art-making. These technical workshops are fast paced and at times chaotic environments that few people can reign in, let alone command. Graeme Brett and Nick Waterson are among the few men who are capable of such a feat and are the pillars of the old establishment that is Elam School of Fine Arts. They are synonymous with its history and withstanding reputation as one of Auckland’s finest art schools. Now after years of dedication they, along with technicians from other art departments at the University of Auckland, stand to face the possibility of exile into a desert-like job market according to “The National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries- Technical Staffing Review Consultation Document”.

“It makes you feel completely worthless and undervalued.” Nick said, holding my stare for a little bit longer as if to punctuate the depth of his sentence, a gesture he doesn’t easily oblige. Nick Waterson’s job is to materialise the lofty ideas of art students into tangible structures while pointing out the limitations and practicalities of physics. Once he hears a student’s clearly articulated idea, he rarely ever abandons these hypothetical structures but finds ways to realise them with nothing less than a perfectionist’s attention to detail. He instills in his students the value of careful attention to every aspect of a job from the quality of materials to the laborious process of sanding until baby smooth, rush jobs are sacrilegious in his workshop.

Waterson has been the wood workshop technician at Elam since 2003, the year he had to “make the decision between making money and doing this job. I chose this job because it is worthwhile. We shape people’s lives, we give them a meal ticket by giving them real skills that they can put to use in a creative job market. If you want to be a prop designer for example, you need real technical skill for that, you can’t talk your way through it… I’ve come in on weekends to help my students with their projects close to deadlines and I never got paid for that, I did it because I care…” This made me think back to one of my tutors at Elam who told me in quite a nonchalant manner that we shouldn’t bother emailing him with questions outside of studio hours because he wasn’t paid to read them. Nick goes on to describe the day the technical staff were called in for the meeting to let them know they could all potentially be ‘disassigned’. “The whole room went completely silent for a long time and then we started to ask questions, but the only response we got was, “We can’t answer that” or “It’s all in the document, read the document…”” Soon after the meeting they started to prepare their umbrella submission in response to the document. “This is going to completely change the fabric of Elam,” he concludes.

The document so frequently referred to in this meeting, persistently sponsors the theme of ‘change is good and necessary’ and outlines the fact that the structure of technical services has been unchanged since well before 2004. It throws around keywords that describe a familiar circus of disgruntled stakeholders, pressured financial environment, disconnection between academic requirements and technical service, evolution of teaching and attributing all decisions to the greater good of meeting the “Faculty’s strategic goals”. These goals include, “small future growth targets for student numbers” and propose the disestablishment of 14.9 FTE positions and generously propose 10.0 new positions that they intend to advertise internally and externally, gently mentioning redundancy and counselling in parallel sentences on the page.

The designation of the failure to meet the Faculty’s strategic goals to the technical staff was met with a very emotional response by the students at Elam, who did not skip a beat expressing it via Facebook and an umbrella submission of their own. The delivery of this news to the students was particularly sloppy- the students were called for a meeting that was cancelled/ postponed at the last minute three times, until finally a woman, “a deferrer, who had nothing to do with anything, who makes coffee…” was sent to relay the news in some vague fragments while clearly emphasising the message “Don’t Panic”. This lack of communication was particularly insulting considering the emotional investment these students have made with the technicians over time, having worked hard to build relationships with them to earn their time and energy in an environment where the technicians are already spread thin. The idea of having to rebuild the kind of rapport that they have with these technicians who have come to know their aesthetic and style of working, much more intimately than their tutors is frightening. Most importantly, they have recognised the technicians as the sole resource of attaining any real technical skill in the Fine Arts department.

When I followed Graeme to his office, he was already pacing and looking through his furiously annotated copy of the document. “I started working here in 1973, back then this whole workshop was about the size of a shed…” He looked up at me with an expression of genuine worry.

I stared at the logo on his overalls- ‘A Hard Yakka’. Graeme Brett is a spritely, emotional, white haired man who still carries metal structures three times his size with ease, whistling while he does. Before his journey at Elam, Brett’s parents had suggested he become a sign painter- a prospect he was appalled by, he started work as an animator at Morrow productions instead, but he soon grew to despise the industry and the people in it. When he quit his job and started working on his art in a studio of his own, a friend suggested that he study art at Elam. “Elam had only been a part of the University of Auckland for about four years then, the entire school had the attendance of roughly 120 students altogether. Jim Allen and Greer Twiss were our technicians; Jim was the calm collected one while Greer was the emotional one. They were incredible, they cared about our projects as if they were their own, and they were as excited about the end result as we were.” My fond smile mirrored his, as I note that his technicians were to him, exactly what these technicians have been to us. I remember a day when the casting technician Greg Dyer came rushing up to my studio in the middle of his busy day, to tell me that he thought of another method we could try for a glass sculpture we had attempted to cast twice already without any luck.

“They were so passionate and we were all part of a community back then… I miss those days sometimes, they were racehorses those two, they would never have stood for all of the stuff that’s going on now.”

“Managerial stuff?”

“Yes, like our current situation- they would’ve fought against it just as they fought amongst themselves…” He recalls an incident where Greer and Don Binney were at each other’s throats about whether the space that is now the student common room (which was being used as their staff room at the time) should be turned into an exhibition space. It ended with Greer kicking one of his large steel sculptures down the stairwell.

“Even then, I stood against turning the staff room into an exhibition space because the management would then say- See, you’ve done it again, you’ll cope. I said either they would set up a space to exhibit or make us a staff room. Even now, it’s all scare tactics to see if we’ll cope, the harder they push the faster we’ll run… It’s taken us 45 years to figure out exactly what facilities we need to cater to our students and they are suggesting that we could have the same in an engineering workshop, which is just not true.” There is a childlike glint in his eye while he talks of the old passionate, rebellious days and says, “I feel like I’ve gone soft. I am unable to have conversations I used to have with second years back then, with fourth year students now, their knowledge of art just isn’t the same.” He muses over the activity in the workshop earlier in the week as second years prepared for their upcoming critiques, “This place was buzzing with activity, the sounds of all the machines going, I thought to myself this is like the old days…” as if it he was savoring the last few happenings.

These men have earned the right to take their jobs for granted because they have truly earned it. They have been figures of stability whom the students have been able to turn to for anything from a discussion about art, philosophy, literature or the banal; practical help and technical solutions or just a look at their offices from Graeme’s visual diaries to Nick’s ceramics when they’re running low on inspiration. They are necessary anchors in an art environment where tutors (with the exception of a handful) reek of a new school breed of laziness, being contrary and who deem spending an hour discussing “What is a moment?” productive. The students of Elam have adapted to the way of men with “hard skills.” Making these men redundant would be effectively uprooting the only stabilising beams of Elam.