The Māngere Arts Centre - Ngā Tohu o Uenuku in Māngere. (Photo: Supplied)

The cost of convenience? Why a council services merger has some artists worried

You could soon return your library books, pay your rates and buy a ticket to an upcoming play all in one place. But, as Justin Latif reports, some members of the South Auckland arts community are worried about the impact of a restructure of council services.

 “We need to be championing South Auckland art and artists, and I just don’t know if someone who comes from a library background is going to bring that experience.”

That’s Qiane Matata-Sipu on changes to operations at Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku and the Māngere Town Centre library. The changes are part of Auckland Council’s restructure of community services across the city. 

Matata-Sipu is an award-winning artist, activist, photographer and journalist who has held a number of events and exhibitions at the Māngere Arts Centre. She admits to being surprised to hear that staff from the arts centre and Māngere Town Centre library will now be working interchangeably across the two sites.

“The arts centre should have its own staff, supporting the arts community, and when you have someone working there, who isn’t in that space, you start to water down the service, and potentially water down the possibilities.”

The restructure will see six new community hubs created in Māngere, Te Atatu Peninsula, New Lynn, the central city, Onehunga, and Pukekohe, where libraries, arts centres and community centres will merge their staff teams, streamline their services and appoint a single manager to run each locality’s hub. 

Auckland Council’s manager of community spaces Kevin Marriot says the changes also include plans for these hubs to take on a greater customer services role by becoming places people can pay their rates or get their dog registered.

“It’ll be a one-stop shop,” he says. “We did some research in Ōtara to understand what the community wanted, and what they really wanted was a joined up, coordinated experience, with common opening times.

“So we’ll have one leader, one team, one set of resources, one set of programmes and experiences that are conceived together.”

Richard Misilei is connected communities lead and coach for the Ōtara Papatoetoe Local Board area. As part of that role, he oversees operations at four libraries as well as Fresh art gallery, Te Puke O Tara community centre and the Ōtara Music Arts Centre (OMAC). 

While Ōtara is yet to be made a community hub like Māngere, he says the suburb is already taking a joined-up approach to provision of services.

“Because we’re one unit now, we can send someone over from the library to look after the gallery,” he says.

When further changes come to Ōtara, he’s looking forward to locals being able to pay council fees at the counter, he says, and to the library and arts centre offering a unified school holiday programme, rather than each “doing its own thing”.

From left, Auckland Council’s Richard Misilei, Qiane Matata-Sipu and Ema Tavola.(Photo: Justin Latif/Supplied/Cornell Tukiri)

Rethinking what’s “essential”

Naomi Singer was the founding manager of the Māngere Arts Centre and, until recently, the council’s arts and culture operational strategy manager; she parted ways with the council as a result of the latest round of restructuring. She says she wants to give the new community hub managers a chance before passing judgement but shares the concerns about what the restructure will mean for South Auckland’s arts scene. 

“For me, what’s most important is that community spaces have a sense of identity and a purpose to be locally relevant. A library should always have that purpose at its core, just as an art gallery and theatre has a purpose, it’s got to retain that. It can’t be turned into any neutral, bland space, otherwise we are not seeing the benefits it was built for. 

“Māngere Arts Centre was purpose-built for something very special, which we thought Māngere had a lot of potential for, which is creativity and arts practice, and cultural expression.”

She says changes to arts and cultural services should spark Aucklanders to rethink what is really an “essential service” and to understand council’s role in creating that perception.

“Are they essential services for a community’s wellbeing, or essential services to keep our cities safe? And how can the arts be a part of that?”

Ema Tavola is an artist-curator based in South Auckland who runs the Vunilagi Vou independent art gallery in Ōtara. She says librarians are great at connecting with people, and is hopeful that giving them a greater role in local communities will be a positive outcome of the restructure. But she shares the concern that it will damage Māngere Arts Centre’s mana in the community. 

“I’ve been a critic of Auckland Council’s art delivery for the last decade or so, but this of feels like an even greater lessening of the presence of arts at the Māngere Arts Centre. It’s not to say the library staff couldn’t be great, but it just makes it more generic.”

She’s also concerned about the impact of further cuts on staff morale – and how that may affect the service they are able to provide

“There’s a fatigue that comes with the restructures and it does affect the experience of customers at the end of the day.”

Restructure’s impact on staff

The Spinoff understands that a number of council employees share Tavola’s concerns about the impact on staff. The changes will require them to work across multiple sites and the employee union, the Public Service Association (PSA), has voiced concerns about the extra stresses that could result.  

In a statement, the PSA said that frontline council staff “are feeling tired and suffering from change fatigue”. 

“There are still vacancies to be filled and staff who face redundancy – it’s understandable people are feeling like their workplaces are understaffed and under-resourced.

“We’d like to see some recognition of the stress our members are under, and steps taken to ensure people are healthy and safe at work.”

In an emailed response, Auckland Council connected communities general manager Mirla Edmundson said the council had been working with the PSA throughout the transition to community hubs. “[It is] a relationship that is important to our people and that we value, and we are disappointed by some of these comments.

“We acknowledge that there are still vacancies within the structure that we are working swiftly to fill.

“Redundancies have been kept to a minimum throughout this process, with opportunities for people to apply for roles in the new structure being our first focus. Some have opted for redundancy, considering it timely to make a career change.

“We are committed to equity for our people, managing change carefully, and supporting the wellbeing of our staff.”

Council community spaces manager Kevin Marriot says that, contrary to some claims, cost-cutting “is not a driver of this change. This is about serving our communities better.

“The most important thing is [the community hubs] will still provide distinct, specialist experiences.

“But people are busy, people have lots of options. This keeps things simple, by promoting what’s available and coordinating what’s available, so it’s more convenient for more consumers.”

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