From blind spot to hot spot

Wandering through the Art Gallery of New South Wales, you would be hard pressed to find a work by a New Zealand artist on display—even our most famous artists are sadly missing from the collection. Sue Gardiner finds that is about to change.

I once spent an afternoon in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ storeroom looking at their New Zealand collection—I was there to curate an exhibition of New Zealand works in Sydney in 2001. It didn’t take long because there wasn’t much to see—historic works by New Zealanders who had become part of Australian art history, and a group of contemporary photographs acquired by curator Judy Annear. And after my visit, I was left with the haunting memory of Toss Woollaston’s painting, Waimea (1957), looking lonely and neglected on the gallery’s storage rack. It was purchased in 1958 and has mostly been in storage ever since. I longed for the work to be repatriated to New Zealand, or better still, become part of an active collection of other New Zealand works in Sydney.

Many years later, it seems this is exactly what is happening. In September this year, AGNSW launched a new group dedicated to building a New Zealand collection in Sydney and forging closer artistic relations between the two countries. It was an exciting moment for New Zealander Justin Paton, the gallery’s Head Curator of International Art, as he raised a glass to Friends of New Zealand Art (FoNZA) and to the recent acquisition of the gallery’s first major Colin McCahon work Teaching Aids 2 (July) 1975. This ten-panel work, acquired in 2014 by the AGNSW Foundation, fills a gaping hole in the gallery’s collection. Other Australian institutions have long collected his work—there are 41 McCahons in the National Gallery of Australia, including Victory Over Death 2, which Prime Minister Robert Muldoon famously gifted to the Australian people in 1978. At the time many considered the gift a joke—especially the media who lampooned the work. Yet it’s now considered one of the gallery’s most iconic works—along with Jackson Pollock’s expressionist painting Blue Poles.

At the launch Paton said: “We want to collect some things that look a hundred percent like New Zealand art, but we’d also love to collect some things that don’t—because as the current flag debate demonstrates—it doesn’t always need a silver fern. We want the Friends (FoNZA) to help us show New Zealand art, not just with other New Zealand art, but with the un-New Zealand kind, because that’s what we can offer that is transformative for artists—to be seen on the international stage—McCahon with his Australian peers who pay him homage, Killeen beside Matisse, Driver beside Rauschenberg.”

Richard Killeen, Dreamtime, 1980, acrylic lacquer on aluminium, 26 pieces, installation dimensions variable. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Jim Barr, Mary Barr and Richard Killeen, Founding Governors of the Friends of New Zealand Art, 2015. © Richard Killeen.

With no state funding for acquisitions, the gallery relies on private patronage to extend its collections, hence the newly created FoNZA joins at least seven other targeted benefactor collecting groups. If Paton, who joined the gallery team last year, was nervous about whether patronage would be forthcoming in the lead-up to the launch, he needn’t have worried. The acquisition fund received generous donations, and somewhat unexpectedly, it also received artworks. Paton said: “Jim Barr, Mary Barr and Richard Killeen stepped up with the offer of Rick’s remarkable Dreamtime, a classic cut-out from 1980, which has been to Sydney before in the important New Zealand exhibition Headlands at the Museum of Contemporary Art—could there be a better trans-Tasman gift?”

Other pledged gifts include works by Frances Hodgkins, Len Lye, etal., Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, Shane Cotton, Don Driver, Tony Fomison, Peter Peryer and Michael Parekowhai, whose inflatable rabbit Cosmo McMurtry (2006) has hopped into town. “I received a phone call from the young Sydney collector Clinton Bradley who wondered if we would like to give a home to a certain inflatable rabbit of Michael Parekowhai’s,” Paton explained. “We have happily allowed this bit of feral Kiwi wildlife to invade our Australian galleries.”

Michael Parekowhai, Cosmo McMurtry, 2006, woven nylon substrate, pigment, electrical components, 330 x 180 x 280cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Clinton Bradley, Founding Governor of the Friends of New Zealand Art. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2015. © Michael Parekowhai.

 Dealer galleries in Australia and New Zealand—among them Ray Hughes, Darren Knight, Gow Langsford, Tim Melville and Hamish McKay—have long been engaged in trans-Tasman conversations, exhibiting the art of their close neighbours. Andrew Jensen and Emma Fox, who have established dealer galleries in Sydney and Auckland, have also pledged a work to FoNZA. “The new collecting group may be a long overdue attempt to address the significant gap in the AGNSW’s collection,” Jensen says. “However, there has long been healthy regard for New Zealand art and indeed for private gallery practice amongst collectors in Australia. Perhaps as a function of cultural maturity and confidence, the enthusiasm for good work, regardless of where it is made, is increasingly more important.”

“Seeing New Zealand art in serious museums such as the AGNSW is a win-win proposition,” he says. “I’ve heard it quietly said, ‘Why would we want the best New Zealand work to be travelling off-shore?’ The answer is: Why wouldn’t we? It seems extraordinary that when you finally get invited to the dance you demur and think you’ll stay at home. This growing interest in New Zealand practice ought to be encouraged and supported. Gifting a major work from our collection simply feels like a responsible action. We would like to share certain works over time with a public audience, and if that public audience is fundamentally new and enthusiastic, then how marvellous is that?”

Auckland gallerists Michael Lett and Andrew Thomas worked alongside et al. to pledge a gift of a major installation work by the collective. Lett says, “The AGNSW had priorities a little further afield than the lower Pacific, and the New Zealand collections suffered because of this. We clearly have some great artists working in New Zealand, and I’m sure there’ll be a retrospective ‘righting’ when it comes time to acquire works for the collection. In regards to FoNZA, we were pleased to be asked and to be given the opportunity to give and support. It’s what we are here to do. With increasingly tight acquisition funds for museums in the future, and especially in a small economy like New Zealand’s, support needs to be holistic—and warmly accepted from all aspects of the arts sector. Collaborating with the AGNSW to find the right work has been truly exciting for us.”

Fiona Pardington, Portrait of a life-cast of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville, 2010. Courtesy of the Musée Flaubert d’Histoire de la Médecine, Rouen, pigment inks on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, 146 x 110 cm, edition 6 of 10. From the collection of Rick and Jan Frolich.

Other supporters are Sydney collector Simon Johnson, whose gifted works include two Gretchen Albrechts, and Sydney gallery owner, Martin Browne, who donated a Kushana Bush work. Browne believes that rather than being New Zealand’s loss, Paton’s move to Sydney is a huge bonus. “His presence at the AGNSW, his advocacy on behalf of New Zealand art and artists, and his galvanising of art lovers on both sides of the Tasman, will do an enormous amount of positive things for New Zealand art in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if he’d stayed in Christchurch.”

Paton reported that after the launch of FoNZA, the list of gifts and pledges grew to 17 works by 15 New Zealand artists. Adelaide-based collectors Rick and Jan Frolich have pledged Fiona Pardington’s Portrait of a life-cast of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville (2010) which was exhibited as part of the 2010 Sydney Biennale.

Reflecting on his first visit to New Zealand over ten years ago, Rick Frolich describes the glazed looks he recieved from Australian friends whenever he mentioned New Zealand art. Since then the Frolichs and their friend, arts patron Michael Whitworth, have taken many Sydney and Adelaide-based collectors to New Zealand and watched them fall in love with New Zealand art. Frolich recalls taking Michael Brand to see Dame Jenny Gibbs’ collection in 2012—soon after his appointment as director of AGNSW. Brand expressed surprise at how little New Zealand art there was in the AGNSW’s collection and made a quiet commitment to change that.

Angela Tiatia, Heels (from ‘An Inventory of Gestures’ series) 2014, single-channel HD video: 1:50 minutes, looped, colour, sound. Purchased 2015, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.

Gibbs has seen Australian interest in New Zealand art ebb and flow over the years, something she says is due to the “influences of particular individuals—accidents of history if you like. We’ve always been the little cousin that most Australians ignore, so we’ve relied on individual interest. It’s no coincidence then, at this time, that the new Head Curator of International Art at AGNSW and the new Director at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art have both recently worked in New Zealand art institutions. Going in the other direction has been Rob Gardiner’s interest in collecting Australian art for the Chartwell Collection. The many acquisitions made by the Auckland-based collection have had a huge impact.”

The Chartwell Collection, of which I am a trustee, has 361 works by 110 Australian artists, including a major new acquisition by Marco Fusinato, The Infinitive 4 (2015), and a recent work by Hany Armanious. Last year the collection received a gift of 48 works from Melbourne-based artist John Nixon. Works by Mabel Juli and David Cox, from the Warmun region in Western Australia, were shown recently at ST Paul St gallery in Auckland.

Rob Gardiner says, “Several Australian acquisitions made by Chartwell over the years have been major achievements for a New Zealand collection—particularly given the difference in currencies, which has always made it more difficult. An Australian art magazine reported that Chartwell’s acquisition of Tony Tuckson’s Black, Grey, White (1970-73) was the loss of an Australian masterpiece to New Zealand.” The Chartwell Collection is held on loan at Auckland Art Gallery, which has an additional 421 Australian works in its collection. With AAG Director Rhana Devenport and Principal Curator Zara Stanhope both coming from Australia, the tradition of trans-Tasman art gallery appointments continues.

Installation view of Jess Johnson’s Outer Head of the Order, (Vestibule incarnate) in the exhibition Melbourne Now, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2013. © Jess Johnson. Courtesy of Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland.

Devenport enthuses about FoNZA: “I think there are four reasons for this timely venture—first with Justin Paton at the helm of international art at AGNSW, there are solid connections and a natural logic; secondly, without collecting groups, it’s impossible for a specific collecting area to expand as there is no NSW Government support for acquisitions at the gallery; thirdly given the many New Zealanders living in Australia, there’s a large pool of potential supporters; and finally (and importantly) New Zealand art has earned a strong reputation given it’s of such high calibre.”

Another stalwart supporter of New Zealand art is Maud Page, Deputy Director, Collection and Exhibitions, at QAGOMA in Brisbane. The gallery has the largest holding of New Zealand contemporary art outside Aotearoa and includes key works by Gavin Hipkins, Michael Parekowhai, Michael Stevenson and Lisa Reihana.

In 2010 Page curated Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, a touring exhibition of works from the collection by 30 New Zealand artists. She says, “It sought to re-dress the lack of large-scale New Zealand exhibitions in Australia since the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Headlands in 1992.”

She continued this commitment with Michael Parekowhai’s exhibition The Promised Land at the gallery in 2015, backed by a New Zealand Supporters Group. This year for the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (opening on 20 November) she returns to her interest in Pacific performance through a collaborative project with New Zealand-based Rosanna Raymond. “Since I began to work with New Zealand artists,” Page reflects, “the conversation has broadened, the movement of artists has become global and the perception of New Zealand art has changed. It’s perceived less now as a national discourse and more about a global context, with more in-depth nuances.”

Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (still), 2015. Four-channel HD video, 32 minutes (looped), 5:1 sound, colour, edition 2/5. Purchased in 2015 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Appeal and Paul and Susan Taylor. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art.

After 17 years as Director of AAG, Australian Chris Saines returned to Brisbane to direct QAGOMA, so naturally he too champions New Zealand art. After a fundraising appeal by its Foundation, QAGOMA acquired an edition of Lisa Reihana’s acclaimed in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Says Saines, “It was the first work by a New Zealand artist and the first video work to be acquired by the QAGOMA Foundation and recognises the artist’s longstanding connection to the gallery, dating back to 1996.”

When Tony Ellwood became Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2012, he immediately introduced a new focus on contemporary work and appointed Curators Max Delany and Simon Maidment—both of whom have reinforced an active interest in New Zealand art. This is reflected across the different curatorial departments, and has resulted in the NGV having a diverse New Zealand collection, including works by jeweller Warwick Freeman, glass artist Ann Robinson, fashion designers World and Nom*D, ceramicist Len Castle and spectacular glitter works by Reuben Paterson. Maidment says, “It’s fair to say the NGV didn’t acquire a lot of international contemporary art over the past couple of decades. That changed with Tony Ellwood’s appointment.”

Dr Isobel Crombie, NGV Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection, says, “The NGV is very committed to collecting and exhibiting art by New Zealand practitioners. There has been a lot of activity over the last three years and we plan to initiate some exciting projects in future that will highlight this work.” In December this year the gallery will show an immersive, virtual reality installation titled Wurm Haus by Tauranga-born, Melbourne-based artist Jess Johnson.

Installation view of Ronnie Van Hout’s All said all done, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. © Ronnie Van Hout. Purchased with funds donated by Michael and Janet Buxton, 2014 Angela Tiatia, Heels (from ‘An Inventory of Gestures’ series) 2014, single-channel HD video: 1:50 minutes, looped, colour, sound. Purchased 2015, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.

“There are many New Zealand artists living in Melbourne,” says Maidment. “This proximity and presence in Melbourne is reflected in acquisitions too, so we have works by Daniel Crooks, Ronnie van Hout, Richard Lewer, Patrick Pound and Daniel von Sturmer.”

With all this focus on courting New Zealand art, it was certainly timely for AGNSW to join the fan club, and there’s no doubt that Michael Brand’s new curatorial team, including Director of Collections Suhanya Raffel, has played a key part in the sea change.

Remember the solitary Woollaston in AGNSW’s storeroom, which I mentioned earlier? I’ve discovered who purchased the painting. It was Australian artist Hal Missingham, Director of AGNSW from 1945 to 1971. And guess what? In AAG’s collection there’s a painting by Missingham. A true trans-Tasman acquisition story.

Published in Art News Summer 2015

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