Luit Bieringa: Catalyst

Remembering former National Art Gallery director Luit Bieringa.

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.

More from this issue

This follows its inclusion in Horror: Messaging the Monstrous at MoMA, 23 June–5 September 2022.
Robert Leonard reviews the exhibition at Bartley and Company Art, 19 May–18 June 2022.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
The exhibition ran at Robert Heald from 4–27 August 2022.
The Sāmoan and Pālangi artist traverses fashion design, photography, and performance.
The exhibition restages Apple's Rainbows at New York’s Bianchini Gallery, credited as one of the first shows to treat electric light as a sculptural medium.

Read more

Tessa Laird’s new book and her rainbow-hued ceramic sculptures celebrate colour as a powerful, palpable force. Virginia Were reads between the lines.
Arihia Latham reviews the exhibition at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, 28 May–21 August 2022.
Hanahiva Rose contextualises the histories, prophecies and revisitations in Graham’s work
The multifarious, project-based, practice of Janet Lilo is about the journey, not the destination.
Bridget Riggir Cuddy profiles Sorawit Songsataya on the occasion of their Frances Hodgkins Fellowship.
Wystan Curnow, Anthony Byrt, Natasha Conland, and Christina Barton pay tribute.
Tim Bollinger pays tribute to pioneer artist, illustrator and filmmaker Joe Wylie who helped define the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1990s.
Roger Mortimer's meticulous paintings are an otherwordly mix of luminescent colours, medieval manuscript imagery and gritty, contemporary texts.


Enjoy 15% Off

Your First Order