When former National Art Gallery director Luit Bieringa died earlier this year, it was a moment not only to mark the passing of a key figure in Aotearoa New Zealand art—and a friend to many in it—but also to reflect on changes in the structure of our art world.
Bieringa’s family moved to Aotearoa New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1956, when he was fourteen. He went on to study art history at the University of Auckland, and was the first to write an art-history thesis in this country. He took on a contemporary topic, painters Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon. It was McCahon who prompted Bieringa to apply for the directorship of the Manawatu Art Gallery, a small regional space in Te Papaioea Palmerston North. When he was appointed, in 1971, the Gallery was in a house. By the time he left, in 1979, it had a bespoke building.
The 1970s was an exciting time for regional art museums, and Bieringa was among a new generation of energetic young directors, shaking things up. He mounted important shows of McCahon and Woollaston, and a survey of Aotearoa New Zealand photography, The Active Eye. He had a can-do attitude. He was limited by time and money, but never by lack of vision.
In 1979, he was handed the reins at Wellington’s neglected, understaffed National Art Gallery, and set about vitalising it. He built up the staff and facilities, grew the collection, and mounted impressive shows, giving the place a contemporary edge and relevance.
The Gallery shared its Buckle Street building with the National Museum and New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts—the optics weren’t good—and Bieringa quickly convinced the Government to construct a new standalone home for the Gallery in Molesworth Street. However, a change of Government in 1984 saw this plan evaporate. Not one to give up, in 1986, Bieringa took a different route, creating Shed 11, a contemporary-art annex in a repurposed warehouse on the waterfront. There he presented audacious shows like Wild Visionary Spectral: New German Art, Content/ Context, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman. However, the writing was on the wall.
In 1989, after ten years in the job, Bieringa found himself at loggerheads with the new Museum of New Zealand project. It had taken his idea of a new, dedicated, specialist National Art Gallery and reversed it, proposing an institution combining Museum and Gallery. Now an impediment, Bieringa was dismissed. Unfairly, said the judge. Soon, Shed 11 closed. A huge loss for art in the city.
Bieringa stayed in Wellington and went on to do important exhibition and publishing projects as a freelancer. With his wife, Jan, he had a great late moment, reinventing himself as a filmmaker and generating insightful documentaries on Ans Westra, Peter McLeavey, Gordon Tovey, and, most recently, Theo Schoon.