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Providing Insulation

Install shot of Solo2014: Five Wellington Artists. Photo by Mark Tantrum
Install shot of Solo2014: Five Wellington Artists. Photo by Mark Tantrum
Install shot of Solo2014: Five Wellington Artists. Photo by Mark Tantrum
The Critic’s Part, a recently published collection of art writing by Wystan Curnow.
Mark Amery writes on the role of the public gallery in its community and considers The Critic’s Part, a recently published collection of art writing by Wystan Curnow.


Mark Amery writes on the role of the public gallery in its community and considers The Critic’s Part, a recently published collection of art writing by Wystan Curnow.

* * *

Recently, I was asked to give a speech at the opening night of an exhibition of five Wellington artists, Solo at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt. Now I don’t really do openings. Great places to network to be sure, but they’re lousy situations in which to see art. They’re excellent for random, slightly inebriated short bursts of conversation. And for the art critic that’s a fatal mix. Approaches by friends of the artist may start with the slurred opener “so what do you think about this?

My main reason for not making openings is that I have young children and live outside the city. Openings are not community events. They are a space for the friends, funders and museum world - the ecosystem that supports work that should be new and challenging – to strengthen their binds.    

What interested me about this particular opening was how, approximately 10 minutes before I was due to speak, the size of the crowd and its boisterousness swelled magnificently, like a rogue wave. It was the “art bus effect”. The museum put on free public transportation to get the city folk behind the artists out to Lower Hutt - a gesture in keeping with the commissioning of new work from residents of the wider region.   

I did my best to ride the wave. The kids were happy upstairs in the Dowse’s excellent interactive play area and I spoke warmly to the Dowse’s ability to connect the contemporary to community. “A new slogan?” I quipped.

The next day the Dominion Post ran a news story under the headline “Under-performing Dowse Under Fire” with several Hutt City councilors questioning the museum’s funding next to its attendance figures. This is a familiar stoush between local authority as main funder and gallery. Just a shame in smaller places the discussion gets rather unconstructively initiated through the media.

Worse was to come: a spectacularly ungenerous column in the same newspaper by Rosemary McLeod. McLeod asserted that the gallery had “see-sawed” in its commitment to craft, something director Courtney Johnson easily battered away by speaking to the gallery’s programme in a statement on the Dowse’s blog.

Old, wearingly familiar battle lines between the local conservative and fine art worlds were drawn up in McLeod’s piece. Ones that regional institutions like the Dowse have worked hard to break down. McLeod talked of the “sharp class divide between high art and craft”, seemingly ignorant of how much has changed.

She reminisced about a drunk Don Binney at the Dowse’s original opening “spending the tedious public speakers' time clambering over my body.” Not the kind of activity I recall from the opening I attended.

McLeod went on to tell us that “academic art, the only art currently in vogue with  art insiders, can dictate terms in bigger city spaces. Smaller art galleries look to their ratepayers for guidance.” This displays a complete lack of understanding of the diversity of contemporary art practice and its increasing interest in exploring overlapping spheres of interest out in the world. It also ignores the fundamental role the public gallery plays in stretching us, enlarging our worlds, whilst at the same time bringing people to a district. These institutions are nodes in the connective tissue that is our culture, connecting rather than isolating us. 

McLeod wishes upon us a cultural stand-off reminiscent of that last century between modernism and classicism. All this, over a museum which in its diverse programming and outreach has been a national leader in interlinking the local, regional, national and international. It’s not just free buses for those from Wellington City being providing. They’ve been fundraising all year for a free bus campaign that, with the local Rotary Club support, has been targeting Hutt primary schools.

When ideas that challenge our status quo are involved tension should be expected. Those communities around the museum have an investment in it, and expect those challenges to, at least sometimes, hold a resonance and relevance for them.
I thought of McLeod reading the recent published collection of Wystan Curnow’s art writings, The Critic’s Part published by Victoria University Press and co-edited by Robert Leonard and Tina Barton. “As so often happens,” Curnow writes in 1976, “the amateur middleman under pressure becomes the carpetbagger of a consensus culture hostile to the demands of high art.” This is from a fascinating account of the reception of a tour of Billy Apple’s work in 1976, which tested the mettle of the various critics and galleries to preserve what Curnow terms insulation. Some galleries folded under public pressure, few critics defended.

In 1973 Curnow published a brilliant essay High Culture in a Small Province which, with Further Thoughts added in 1998, 2000 and 2013, bookends the collection. Think how little we use that word ‘high’ today for fear of being elitist. Curnow champions the need for elitism and specialists in the growth of a culture. 

As Robert Leonard notes up front, the context for Curnow’s distinction as a writer and curator in New Zealand is that he didn’t just leave New Zealand in the 1960s, he came back. Beginning in 1971, the book picks up on his writing from that return, bringing a parochialism-busting perspective on New Zealand art and literature, and a championing of conceptually-based post-object art that has ever-increasing relevance to contemporary artists today.

Curnow brings together big ideas with a rare clarity, liveliness, sharpness and good humour, with added aplomb for finding poetry in the colloquial.

In the first piece included in the collection, published in a short-lived journal called Arts and Community in 1971, Curnow writes with brilliant directness of the folly of the broadness of the curation of an Auckland Art Gallery exhibition The New Zealand Young Contemporaries.

“The idea of the show doesn’t belong here,” he writes. “It belongs to the kind of scene in which the competition for exhibition space is really stiff… I don’t intend to be mean about this. Well, on second thoughts I do. Because the major galleries have a job to do as far as younger painters are concerned. That job is not to show as many of them as possible, or to pretend there’s a wealth of talent (‘talent’, as in ’quest’, but to put the best of them and their public under the critical pressure of carefully designed group shows.”

Our visual arts scene has grown sizeably since, but the gallery and museum sector has kept pace. Public galleries can remain picky. Solo for example doesn’t look to provide a broad survey of art from Wellington - it identifies five strong, very different artists and puts them in dynamic arrangement every two years. They are given the space they need to grow their practice and wow us.

Since Solo was instituted in 2012, the Michael Hirschfield Gallery at City Gallery has quietly moved away from an exclusive focus on Wellington artists. At the same time under senior curator Leonard it is strongly regaining its international mojo.

The Hirschfield was established in 1999 in honour of Wellington businessman Michael Hirschfield, and a space devoted to exhibiting work by Wellington-based artists and designers. The words “as well as work that has an emphatic connection with this place” seemed rather dubiously added to enable the exhibition of the mediocre work of Lord of the Rings actor turned photographer Viggo Mortensen in 2004.  The City Gallery website now carries the qualifier ‘mainly’ in regards to its exhibition of Wellington work in the space.

The pick of Wellington-resident artists do need attention at City Gallery. Like the Dowse and Pataka, they have an important role in recognising significant work and highlighting it as part of the wider art world ecosystem. As with Solo, it provides a place for these artists to lift their game. But there are far more quality spaces in the city for local work than when the Hirschfield opened. In twenty years we have seen the birth of Pataka, Adam Art Gallery, Expressions and Mahara, not to mention smaller public galleries like Toi Poneke and Enjoy. Within this context the gallery’s principal job should be introducing excellence from further afield.  The qualifier ‘mainly’ is just fine.  

Curnow highlighted the significant increase in the number of public galleries in New Zealand back in 2000. The building boom that started in the 1990s has continued. He points to the corresponding growth of expectations that these public institutions employ mechanisms by which they more visibly appeal to a larger public, at a time when also market forces and corporate influence started to impact on the art world like never before. Considering a work by Simon Denny, in 2013 (with a little less clarity of thought as his earlier writing) he asks whether artists today might be completing “unfinished business” in terms of art’s late ‘60s/‘70s critique of capitalism.  

Curnow remains all about the defense of the battlements of high culture. We now have fine castles like Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, currently showing under Tina Barton’s direction Simon Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, but we have the space for other public galleries to operate differently in relation to the public as well.

In 1998 Curnow wrote ‘High Culture Now! A Manifesto (for Hesketh Henry). For its definition of art’s role and forms and its recognition of multiple publics it’s essential reading. Beautiful also is his championing of art as having a life of its own beyond support structures:  “Art spreads, infects the social body, and is not to be second-guessed. Watch out.”
I do take issue with one point from the vantage point of 2014 though. Curnow considers the gallery’s principal role as to “recognise/construct new forms of thoughts and feelings”, with the dissemination work to the public as “second-most”.  Such ranking of priorities feels like a late ‘90s counterattack on a world where those priorities have become by many in power reversed. Today, they feel far more bonded than Curnow’s battle-cry words make out.

Insulation is one thing, a lack of attention to the excellence around you another. An investment in curation should see curators proactively focus on different areas to dig out the riches. This was borne out at City Gallery Wellington by the quality of the Maori and Pacific Island exhibition programme under a dedicated curator for this area until 2013, Reuben Friend (a programme that under the current ‘guest curator’ scheme feels, unsurprisingly like its languishing). The programme supported a whole slew of contemporary work happening nationally of significance. The Dowse has done similarly well curatorially over the years for craft.

The names Michael Hirschfield and Viggo Mortensen above point to the difficulties sometimes in insulating the public gallery from the wishes of patrons and their friends. And there is no bigger patron than a gallery’s local authority.

When City Gallery reopened in 2009 with three new gallery spaces, the Hancock Gallery in the central ground floor area was stated as being for the showcase of the Civic art collection, held by the council. Only token attempt at that has been made, and for good reason: it doesn’t (like the spate of private collection shows Curnow notes we endured in the 1990s) make for strong programming. Lets hope its not reinstated the next time Wellington City Council comes questioning the gallery’s visitor numbers.     

Written by

Mark Amery

5 Nov 2014

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.