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City Gallery Saga: One in, One Out?

Melissa Gilbert, Atua Otua Kalou, 2020, (video still).
The final structure is out - the Lowdown looks at what it means for City Gallery Wellington - plus controversies, curating comebacks and creative arts news coverage.


On Wednesday, Experience Wellington chief executive Sarah Rusholme finally confirmed the present form of the City Gallery Wellington restructuring.

In this iteration, the role of gallery director remains disestablished and a new role of head of art and heritage, overseeing all of Experience Wellington’s museums, created.

Sources within Experience Wellington, as yet unconfirmed, have suggested this new role will be taken by the current City Gallery director Elizabeth Caldwell.

In continuity with earlier versions of the plan, the role of chief curator is to be replaced with two senior curator roles, which - making an educated guess - will be filled by current curator Aaron Lister and a yet to be appointed Toi Māori curator.

This would appear to mean that the present chief curator, Robert Leonard, is out of a job, and as one of the most highly regarded contemporary curators in Australasia, City Gallery needs him more than he needs City Gallery.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Leonard was ubiquitous in defining what contemporary New Zealand art looked like, holding curatorial posts at the old National Art Gallery, the Govett-Brewster, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and Auckland Art Gallery.

Through his curation in pivotal exhibitions Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992, the touring exhibition Hangover in 1996, and Mixed-Up Childhood at Auckland Art Gallery in 2005 brought to public attention most of the prominent artists working in this country today.

Michael Parekōwhai is a major art star on both sides of the Tasman largely because Leonard chose him to represent Aotearoa in the 1999 Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Leonard has twice curated the New Zealand representation for the Venice Biennale, Michael Stevenson in 2003, and Simon Denny in 2015.

In the announcement Rusholme stated:

“To achieve a positive and supportive working culture, I believe it’s important to embrace the concept of mahitahi – working as one team – which is why I have decided to implement a new functional structure that’s flatter and will allow improved communication and decision-making across all of our sites.”

“Flatter” is the word, i.e. taken to with a steamroller to remove any of the interesting high points that stick out. 

Experience Wellington is, however, to be commended for appointing a director of Māori engagement and a director of children, young people and community engagement.

Remember, this was all due to play out completely behind closed doors before an uninvited avalanche of public backlash from the creative community forced this saga into the spotlight, including here on The Big Idea and prominently on The Dominion Post

Rusholme acknowledged as much, saying “I am acutely aware of the passion and diverse views of the arts sector, especially supporters of City Gallery. It’s my intention to work with them to create remarkable experiences that generate vitality and strengthen the city we love.”

How this news is accepted by those supporters will be worth watching. Judging by the initial reaction gathered by the Dom Post's Andre Chumko, a judicial review could be on the cards. Gallery patron Alan Judge putting it clearly "this won’t go away, but it might take on another form."

- Written by Andrew Wood.

Busy times for Borell

Melissa Gilbert, Atua Otua Kalou, 2020, (video still).

While one of the country’s leading curators seems set to look for work, another is back on display this weekend.

Nigel Borell is opening his first exhibition since his headline-grabbing departure from Auckland Art Gallery, collaborating with Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust to show Moana Waiwai, Moana Pāti from Saturday 12 June for the next three months.

Translated to “from open seas to the shallow waters,” it brings together work developed by nine artists during the 2020-2021 Covid-19 lockdowns - all of whom participated in Tautai’s fale-ship programme.

Moana Waiwai, Moana Pāti will include a diverse range of mediums from the modern to the traditional - visual and spoken - showcasing the work of Pacific creatives Salvador Brown, Melissa Gilbert, Lyncia Müller, Tuāfale Tanoa’i AKA Linda T., Ashleigh Taupaki, Jasmine Tuiā, Christopher Ulutupu, Tyla Vaeau and Jaimie Waititi.

After receiving universal acclaim for the abundantly successful Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, Borell is unsurprisingly in high demand. 

He is also - as Artbeat reports - Arts in Oxford Gallery’s Artist in Residence for June.  As well as making his own artwork during his residency, Borell will facilitate invitational wānanga (workshops) with Māori art practitioners as an opportunity to share mātauranga toi Māori arts knowledge - with an exhibition titled Haumanu Hauora to open at the end of the month.

Borell’s former employer is moving on as well, with Auckland Art Gallery appointing Thomas Irvine as its new Deputy Director.

It’s not a replacement of Borell’s Curator Māori role but as Te Ao Māori News points out, it makes Irvine the most senior Māori at the gallery when he starts next month.

New Auckland Art Gallery Deputy Director Tom Irvine. Photo: Supplied.

Given Borell’s exit was prompted by “major issues” over the level of control Māori had in telling their own story with Toi Tū Toi Ora - and was followed by other resignations and half its Māori advisory board standing down, Irvine’s role will be a pivotal one for the gallery.

Among his more prominent positions to date, Irvine was chief executive of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Māia, the Auckland-based hapū's corporate body set up to advance the cultural, social and environmental aspirations of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, and has been on Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s Advisory Committee.

Making Lizzy's list

Dame Hinewehi Mohi and Sir Grahame Sydney.

Whether you’re attached to titles tied to a colonising monarch from the other side of the world or not - the sentiment of the Queen’s Birthday honours list is one we should all be able to get behind.

As many bemoan the lack of credit and accolades received by creatives for their incredible endeavours and tireless commitment, seeing 25 members of the creative community make the list for their “services” is gratifying. 

While slightly less than the 30 from last June’s acknowledgements, seeing both a Dame and a Knight come from the arts has seen plenty of coverage.

RNZ deserves special mention for their championing of the accolades, with Karyn Hay doing a superb job with her dedicated honours list show.  

She spoke with both singer and music advocate Dame Hinewehi Mohi - who expressed how she feels “really excited and so grateful for the opportunity to be part of a nation that celebrates te reo Māori” - and Sir Grahame Sydney, the painter who thought his knighthood was a wind-up. “I thought my b*****d mates have done this to me again and I actually wrote back to the honours unit and said 'is this real?'”

Sir Grahame’s artistic journey is chronicled in his local The Otago Daily Times, describing to Jared Morgan of his renowned landscapes "I’m a painter with immense limitations and try to make something out of those limitations.”

Dame Hinewehi drew plenty of attention for her honour given her public profile for bringing the te reo Māori version of the national anthem into the sporting - and national - landscape some 22 years ago. But Stuff highlighted her lesser-known but wonderful work in the accessibility community with her Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre - driven by her love for daughter Hineraukatauri​, who was born with cerebral palsy.

But the honours list is about so much more than the names at the top of the list. Work your way down and you find people who may not be household names - but names that have given their all to improve the lives of their communities.

Names like pioneering dancer, choreographer and mentor Jamie Bull ONZM, who told the Kāpiti News “I think the last time I got anything was when I graduated from university, so this honour was a surprise.”

Jamie Bull. Photo: Rosalie Willis/Kāpiti News.

Like Judy Livingston QSM, The Gisborne Herald recognising her service to music and the community.  “Musically, I have been involved in banding (over 50 years), musical theatre and jazz with Java Jive. My music has been my release from the stresses of life but has also given pleasure to the wider community.”

Like husband and wife duo Posenai Mavaega and Tanya Muagututi'a, both made MNZM for their 28 years driving the Pacific Underground arts company (highlighted here on RNZ).

Those are the names we should take the most pride in. If you haven’t read through them yet - the list of creatives is here.

And it’s an important reminder - these names don’t end up on the list by osmosis. It takes someone to nominate these tireless and passionate champions of creativity for it to happen. If you know someone who deserves that spotlight, here are the nomination details.

Play it again

Chad Robinson (foreground). 

Controversy in country music this week - with the result of the New Zealand Country Music Awards songwriting category overturned.

Originally awarded to Mia Jay for her song Imperfect Lover, the judges' result was nullified after it was revealed that the song was commercially released in 2019, thus making it invalid for entry.

As the ODT reports, New Zealand Songwriters Trust chairman Jeff Rea says "While this is really disappointing for Mia, the integrity of the award needs to be upheld...This doesn’t in any way take away the quality of Mia’s song."

That saw runner-up, Queenstown’s Chad Robinson promoted to claim the award for his tune  Alexandra Road. Stuff goes into more detail about the song here.

'We deserve much more'

Equality in the creative industries - and society in general - continues to be an important topic to confront. 

Gender equality in the film industry is something highly regarded producer Chelsea Winstanley continues to champion, as discussed in The Big Idea this week. 

 “I made this internal call to myself...just be really discerning about the projects I pick, the films that I want to be associated with, that they were going to uplift women, have women front and centre. To allow us to participate equally in the space, and provide an opportunity for my daughters to have confidence that they, too, can be the leaders of their own storytelling.”

It’s an issue that fellow filmmaker Louise Lever is hugely passionate about. Her independent documentary Revolt She Said, which screens at Auckland’s Garnet Station this Friday and Saturday (11-12 June), has shown at festivals around the world, examining feminism in Aotearoa today with names like Helen Clark, Courtney Sina Meredith and Alison Mau speaking candidly.

Lever tells The Lowdown “there’s progress in feminism in the creative sector, there are strong women there but we need more women in decision making roles, in powerful roles, at the top where the money is. That’s it. We need much more, deserve much more, and I’m positive it’s coming. There’s such a vibrant next generation coming up – we have much to be hopeful and grateful for.”

Lights out

Disappointment for the people of Lower Hutt, with the Highlight: Carnival of Lights festival’s COVID break becoming more permanent.

Stuff reports that the light festival - which has consistently drawn in excess of 100,000 people -  will be absent again this year after the Hutt City Council withdrew its financial support. 

Previous incarnation of Highlight: Carnival of Lights festival. Photo: Hutt City Council.

It is just one of many councils throughout the country that has looked to trim their budgets after the pandemic. The rights to the festival have been obtained by an as-yet-unnamed backer.

A charitable trust is hoped to be set up to bring back the colourful community feature in 2022 - with the aim to keep it somewhere in the Wellington region.

Frame factor

Journalists and publications are loath to print retractions - and it’s rare you’d see one from an illuminary such as Steve Braunias.

But he’s done just that on Newsroom, after making a comment that Vincent O’Sullivan was the first writer to clean-sweep the categories at the National Book Awards this year.

But after being called out by Janet Frame’s niece, and chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, Pamela Gordon on social media - he’s ‘set the record straight’ that the esteemed Frame “got there first” - posthumously.

But not without standing his ground - as we’ve come to know and love about Braunias. He goes on to detail the lengths Gordon has gone to in the past to “tirelessly and indefatigably to keep the flame of Frame's genius burning bright, and to set the record straight wherever she reasons it may be wronged or in some way dishonoured.” 

And in perhaps the quote of the week - O’Sullivan’s reaction to learning of his place in the literary line - "How do I feel? Suitably Framed. And perhaps to sneak in while living, does have the edge on posthumously."

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

10 Jun 2021

The Big Idea Editor