Journal of New Zealand Art History

The Christchurch Art Gallery

in Journal of New Zealand Art History 24 (2003).

Denis Dutton

We live in a time when museum curators and gallery directors in the English-speaking world have to a distressing degree lost faith in the power of their own collections. Cowed by accusations of elitism, intimidated by nonsense academic art theory, worn-down by guilt-inducing postcolonial victimology, they succumb to pressures either on the one hand to dumb down their presentations, or on the other hand to politicise them.

The greatest local offender in this respect was, of course, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, our national dual-purpose sacred whare-cum-video arcade, when it opened in 1998. If there is one dominant image that then emerged from Te Papa, it was of a museum whose managers were unconvinced the people of New Zealand were intelligent enough to care about its contents. Thatís why it accompanied Charles Goldieís Maori portraits with bright, plastic “thumbs-up” and down hands alongside quotations from critics praising and panning the paintings. Thatís why the exhibit information had to include lame jokes and bad puns. Thatís why it situated McCahonís Northland Panels (1958) next to an old TV and a Kelvinator fridge: if the McCahon didnít move you, maybe the associated household appliance dating from the time of the painting would at least incite nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a cheap, easy emotion to generate, as it plays on the existing life experience of the visitor. It makes no attempt to expand anyoneís historical imagination, and Te Papaís persistent reliance on it was just another symptom of profound museological insecurity. This, along with the thrill rides, was bad enough. More concerning was the way Te Papa intended to position itself as the ideological powerhouse to lead the lesser museums and galleries of New Zealand. It has wanted to be the ideal for the rest of the country to emulate.

Now the tables are turned. Thereís new management in Te Papa and early but encouraging signs of a return to serious curatorship and museology on the Wellington waterfront. And there is now another model, an anti-Te Papa, for the museum community to consider: the new Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. A clear sense of confidence and self-respect is the most single important factor in the new galleryís evident success: here is an institution that takes its contents, its visitors, and itself seriously.

The enormous glass facade works well, impressive from the outside and creating a striking sense of “way-up-there” space in the entry hall. The early critics were wrong: this does not suggest a shopping mall. The placement of both the restaurant and the gallery shop is deft: accessible, open, but supporting the main action from the sidelines. The galleries themselves are properly sized for a healthy turnover of small to moderate-scaled exhibitions, with ample adjustable space for the permanent collection.

Speaking of turnover, I was once told by a designer that red is good for restaurants interiors because it is attractive and inviting at first, but people tire of it and donít linger after theyíve finished their meal. On that argument, the Pohutukawa Red used in the historic galleries on the first floor is a perfect choice for a gallery looking for a high turnover of patrons. It is suggestive of history (more anyway than modernist white), contrasts nicely with the predominant blues of early landscapes, and, as senior curator Neil Roberts pointed out to me, it elegantly sets off the gold frames. Itís nice to arrive in that red environment, but itís also pleasant to leave it for whiter walls.

Rata Lovell-Smith, Hawkins (1933)

If there is a problem with the main gallery, it is not insufficient space, it is rather the preponderance of old and contemporary potboilers in this initial display of the collection. Some of the historical genre dross (Fredric Roeís insipid 1890 May Day is a pet hate) will surely be sent back to storage for most if its future life. Let the space for this oversized Victorian junk be relinquished to better display marginalised smaller masterpieces, for example, Margaret Stoddartís 1902 Old Cornish Orchard.

Petrus van der Velden, Satara Player (1893)

Itís intriguing to the extent to which the Orientalist kitsch that captivated our great grandparents appears, when we see it all together, to have gone stale. There was a time when southern Italy was a far-away place and North Africa another planet for English audiences. Artists built careers on sexy exoticism, but their work seems quaint and naÔve today. On the other hand, such paintings are part of the history of local taste, and now and again need to be given their place in the Gallery, despite the protestations of snobs. There are ratepayers for whom Victorian kitsch is their favorite art. Moreover, childrenís interests in art have to start someplace, and often itís with the Royal Academy of a century ago at its overwrought, sentimental worst. Better than not starting at all, and technical work that went into these paintings is by any fair viewing wonderful to behold.

Petrus van der Velden, Dutch Funeral (1872)

In the historic gallery, particularly, the paintings benefit from being seen together in close proximity, playing off one another in contrast and complement. The effect enriches experience and expands understanding. In the contemporary areas, itís quite a different story. There the squashing together of mostly single works by a wide variety of New Zealand artists is much less successful. The style, media, and motivating ideas are so varied that the works actually detract from each other. This is not really a fault in how they are hung. The problem is in the very nature of the work: the extreme, look-at-me gestures that feature in so much contemporary practice. Where the older paintings try to entice and charm the viewer, as we walk through gallery into the twentieth century, there is increasing desperation simply to get the viewerís attention. Without consciously intending to do so, the Christchurch Art Galleryís mode of exhibition brings this out.

William Sutton, Plantation Series (1988).

Overcrowded walls is an accusation that has been made of the W. A. Sutton retrospective exhibition, but here again, the virtues and faults of that exhibition are pretty much Suttonís. Itís his work, the experiments that succeed and a few that fail that is revealing. The late Plantation Series paintings (1986-88) are as poignant and moving as ever.

A stunning, ancient ornamental sternpost from a Maori waka in Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu was for me a reminder of what an asset Christchurch has in its historic Polynesian and Melanesian art from the W.O. Oldman collection. This is held by the Canterbury Museum, but sadly much of it is no longer on display. The Museum in any event is now tending toward an ethnographic style of presentation. There is more than enough material in town to fill one of the Art Gallery rooms with a dramatic exhibition of Oceanic work, presented fully as art rather than anthropological specimens. Will the Gallery consider this challenge in the future?

Thereís an old story about a visitor who once told a guard in a Dutch museum that he thought the collection of Rembrandts was pretty good. “Actually, sir,” the guard said, “itís not the Rembrandts that are on trial here.” One does have the welcome and refreshing feeling that the Christchurch Art Gallery also enjoys some measure of similar self-confidence. It is friendly without trying to ingratiate itself. It has attained immediate popularity in the city before it has even tried to popularise itself. Thatís an achievement. Long may it flourish.

Copyright ©2003 Journal of New Zealand Art History.