Published Metro magazine
Suspended high up in the atrium of the reopened Auckland City Art Gallery, a sculpture of a giant bunch of flowers welcomes visitors into the expanded space.
It’s a wonderful bouquet, but has the gallery earned it? What can we expect from this leasing art institution in the months and years ahead?
Before the main gallery closed three years ago for the rebuild, the Auckland Art Gallery was struggling.
Some artists, gallery owners, former staff and other members of the arts community believed the organisation lacked a coherent strategy.
Some artists and educators said it had become irrelevant to their needs. There was a litany of missed opportunities. A Bill Hammond retrospective was declined, and so was a show by the great German conceptualist Joseph Beuys.
The main complaints were of a failure by the gallery to engage and communicate.
It’s there in the numbers. Even before the main gallery closed, the place was averaging just 190,000 visitors a year.
In contrast, over the past year 130,000 people have trekked out to the Pah Homestead in Hillsborough to see exhibitions drawn mainly from James Wallace’s collection of New Zealand art.
The two brief showings from New York hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson’s “promised gift” of paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Dali and other masters have been the ACAG’s biggest draws. They attracted 1000 people a day during the month in 2006 when they were first on display and 1400 a day during a one-week hang of five works in 2009.
The next best draws were the Rita Angus retrospective toured from Te Papa which drew 450 people a day, and the Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith show back in 2003, which drew 400 people a day after its return from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Both those shows were free, which highlights the problem that the gallery, and more particularly the New Gallery which is now closing, was saddled with for many other shows – a 1980s-style policy that people needed to be charged or they wouldn’t value the art.
Most shows have drawn fewer than 200 people a day, and the Walters Prize, which is supposed to be a biannual snapshot of the best in New Zealand contemporary art, gets a risible 70 people a day through the door.
A lot has changed since the scaffolding went up.
There is 50 percent more exhibition space, as well as workshop and storage areas, labs and administration offices that are planned out rather than shoved into any available space.
The heritage buildings on the site and the new construction have been integrated into three levels, rather than seven, which has meant floating the floor of the East Gallery a metre and a half above the original plate.
A tour of the collection can now be done as a series of loops, including a rooftop promenade and coffee kiosk, instead of dead-ending in spaces that didn’t lead anywhere.
And rather than director Chris Saines reporting to senior management of the old Auckland City Council, the gallery is now under Regional Facilities Auckland.
Sir Don McKinnon, chairman of the council-controlled organisation, acknowledges there may have been criticism of the gallery in the past but “we start with a clean sheet”.
“Let’s work on the basis the board is expecting the gallery management to be outward looking and outwardly engaged.
“We will give Chris Saines breathing space after the opening to clear his mind and then look at ways to actively engage.”
The gallery is opening with more than 800 works from the almost 15,000 in its collection, as well as a two-month run of all 15 works in Robertson’s promised gift.
That programme, which was planned to get around any scheduling difficulties that might have arisen by delays in the construction schedule, gives the public a chance to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the gallery’s collections.
The future programme hasn’t been revealed, although McKinnon says the board has been asked to support hosting a large traveling show next year.
So what does this “world-class public art gallery” that will “transform the cultural heart of our city” – as the gallery describes it - look like.
The entry is impressive. Instead of the previous crabwise shuffle into the corner of the building, visitors now cross a generous space fronting on to Kitchener St.
At the top of the kauri-clad columns holding up the porch are new sculptures by Arnold Wilson, one of the original Maori modernists and still going strong in his 80s.
The ground floor galleries tell the story of New Zealand art history through its collection, from early 21st century works back to early colonial and even pre-European times.
Themes and references are picked out. Harsh light landscape paintings by Brent Wong, Don Binney and Robin White and a Lawrence Aberhart photograph hang together, Pat Hanly and Rob Ellis rub painterly shoulders, and works by Gordon Walters, Fred Graham and Theo Schoon, all derived from koru and kowhaiwhai patterning, stand side by side.
With Maori curator Ngahiraka Mason on board, the gallery has sought to build up a significant collection of Maori modernists.
It has bought early works from artists like Graham, Wilson and Para Matchitt, and is now showing them as part of the main current of New Zealand modernism rather than being off to the side where Maori artists, with the exception of Ralph Hotere, have tended to be placed.
The gallery has large holdings of work by several significant painters, including McCahon, Walters and Francis Hodgkins.
The original plan for the New Gallery was for there always to be McCahons on show, but this fell away after a few years. This is going to be fixed.
“We have the space now to ensure that artists like McCahon and Walters are not on occasional display but are constantly at the forefront of what the gallery shows,” says Saines.
There is also a permanent space for the Goldie and Lindauer paintings the gallery counts as a drawcard for international visitors.
The gallery is using the opening to rehang some of its benefactor collections, starting with most of the 53 works gifted in 1885 by former Governor and Premier Sir George Grey, including the Henry Fuseli painting that formed the start of the gallery’s internationally-important collection of the Swiss-British artist’s work.
Curator Mary Kissler has put together an exhibition showcasing the wealth of international material from the Mackelvie Trust, such as the Guido Reni Saint Sebastian.
So, from the collection, that’s the great Maori moderns, other New Zealand greats, international highlights and some of the collection’s themes, all getting a renewed commitment to their presentation.
But what about the contemporary art – the new stuff?
Upstairs in the new space opening onto Albert Park is what Saines describes as the only gallery space in the country that will be dedicated to changing exhibitions of international contemporary art.
While there are a couple of recently-done works in the first bay, around the corner is a set of 50-year old prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, an Ed Ruscha painting from the mid-1980s, a row of Jim Dine cast aluminium flowers - hardly contemporary.
“There are undoubtedly modern things that are part of the story of contemporary art,” says Saines.
“There are absolutely contemporary works and a few earlier works but let’s take some latitude here. Our collection is what it is, we do not have hundreds of contemporary international works.
“We are not a museum of contemporary art. That is not our exclusive remit.”
The Auckland Gallery holds collections that cover an incredibly broad cross-section of the history of art, from the 15th century t the 21st, as well as the country’s largest New Zealand collection. And therefore it faces one of the biggest questions for any public gallery or museum with a collection: how does it manage its collection so it doesn’t get trapped in the past and can move forward? This underlies other questions: what should the gallery show, for example, and what should it buy?
Saines can point to a number of works commissioned for the reopening that might suggest they have the matter in hand, yet it is hard to see how the gallery has really approached the complex and confusing world of contemporary art in a way that serves the people of Auckland.
Tim Walker, a former director of Lower Hutt’s Dowse Gallery, says while the Auckland gallery describes itself as “world class”, a better option may be to seek to be “globally relevant”.
In that light, he describes the new building as “looking like a really good Australian gallery … circa 1983”.
He means there’s a sense of catch-up around the rebuilding project, and playing catch-up isn’t a game Auckland can win.
The market for good modern and contemporary works is such that a New Zealand gallery will struggle to compete against much-better-heeled trophy hunters.
Barring pieces of luck, like endowments or a billionaire falling out with his New York neighbours, the gallery is not going to get the items it may be wanting.
The alternative would be to focus on what it can access, art of New Zealand and the Pacific.
That’s what being globally relevant means: identifying potential strengths or unique advantages and pursuing them.
What better place to showcase Auckland artists, New Zealand artists, Maori artists, Pacific artists, putting them in context and giving the public a chance to see the way the culture is evolving.
While Ngahiraka Mason is continuing with the project kicked off in the 1980s by Alexa Johnson of bringing the Maori modernists into the fold, the gallery is long overdue for a show cataloguing and contextualising the various strands of contemporary Maori practice. As for Pacific artists, they are even less visible.
Public art galleries have an important role to play in an artist’s career, serving to establish or validate their place in the wider culture through a hierarchy of opportunities – acquisitions, inclusion in themed shows, installation invitations, surveys, retrospectives, posthumous retrospectives.
There’s a high degree of subjectivity involved, and it’s never without controversy. After all, status and money are at stake. But it’s part of a gallery’s function that Auckland hasn’t been doing well in recent years.
In the past decade there have been only 10 large single-artist shows of living New Zealand artists and four of dead ones – and several of those were curated elsewhere.
Saines believes the gallery does connect with New Zealand contemporary art and artists. “Among the gallery stakeholders are contemporary artists themselves and we do work very closely with the contemporary art community,” he says.
“We are a museum that dedicates and commits itself to the acquisition and programming of contemporary New Zealand art, and we do it in the context of international practice through the agency of things like the triennial (a three-yearly survey of contemporary art), we do it through the agency of the Walters Prize, we do it through the very strong commitment we make to purchasing New Zealand art and overwhelmingly what we buy is contemporary New Zealand art.”
But artists are more than stakeholders. They’re the people who create what will be in the gallery in future, who feed off what’s on its walls, who live and breathe art, and who can be expected to have an awareness of what’s going on and what’s important.
While the Auckland Art Gallery doesn’t have as strong a record with contemporary artists as it might, it does appear to know how to look after benefactors. Galleries have been renamed, so today’s big spenders like Alan and Dame Jenny Gibbs, Trevor Farmer and Michael Friedlander get equal billing with Sir George Grey and James Tannock McKelvie.
Still, the largest contribution to the $121 million rebuild was $56.1 million from Auckland City Council ratepayers, with $30 million coming from the government.
That should give Aucklanders a sense of ownership of the new space and some high expectations.
There’s all that wall space, not to mention the loading dock and jumbo sized lift, just waiting for action.
Now we need a programme worthy of the expense.GREAT BUILDING, SHAME ABOUT THE WALK UP
The new entrance to the Auckland City Art Gallery is impressive, but step back too far and you’ll fall down Khartoum Place.
That’s because, rather than a broad Spanish Steps-type approach rising up from Lorne St – or even through the arcade to Queen Street - the architects were barred from touching the tile mural bisecting the cramped alley.
That mural, ostensibly marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, was thrown up without consultation in 1993.
Council officers, who had been lobbied to take the project by tile maker Jan Morrison, sought to mollify the gallery and the architects designing the adjoining New Gallery by saying it was temporary.
But any attempt to remove the eyesore and create an elegant working public space integrated with the gallery access is now decried as an attack on feminism.