To be clear, Te Papa’s recent expansion of its dedicated art space for displaying the national art collection is an improvement on the old space. The 35% expansion was needed and is to be celebrated, as are the thoughtful spaces and details designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects. But the improvements are, in the end, a bit like expanding and redecorating a leaky home—it does not matter what you do on the inside when the institution and structure itself aren’t serving their purpose. So Toi Art, as Te Papa has termed the redesigned art gallery, does absolutely nothing to negate the need for a stand-alone national art gallery; and in fact, after seeing the institution’s choices of what art to display there, it becomes a glaring symbol of why we need one.
A National Art Gallery must serve a specific function, and it is a function very different to the role that both private museums and smaller galleries play (to say nothing of dealer galleries). A local gallery, whether it be the Suter in Nelson or the City Gallery in Wellington, must provide for the dual need of displaying the visual tradition of its place as well as reflecting the times that its visitors now live in. Most of the time, especially in rural communities, the institution may well be the only dedicated art space in the town or city, and so must provide multiple functions. The Auckland Art Gallery is an exemplar of a local gallery, with a permanent international collection and exhibitions, rotating exhibitions of New Zealand art, and the constant addition of contemporary exhibitions from New Zealand and abroad.
A National Gallery meets a different need, and its functions must therefore be very different. Its role is to reflect the tradition of the nation (showing, too, how that tradition is derived from elsewhere in a long history) and to make this visual tradition accessible to both citizens and foreign visitors. It is necessarily located in a specific place, and that this place is the capital city is taken for granted. But its function is practically irrespective of both its time and its place since it reflects the needs of the nation as a whole. The National Art Gallery of New Zealand should, at heart, be concerned with making our visual culture plain. It is necessarily an historical institution, because it is only with the passage of time that the cultural tradition can be understood and assessed—it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can determine what has made us who we as a people now are.
Toi Art, out of some perverse need to be seen as “relevant” and “contemporary” (never mind that those are goals antithetical to organising and making accessible our national cultural tradition) has viewed as its competition the Auckland Art Gallery, forgetting entirely that it exists in a category with no competition. There is, after all, just one National Art Gallery. And so, to open the new exhibition spaces, Te Papa commissioned Michael Parekowhai to create a contemporary conceptual piece that would comment on museums and their role, as if it were a local gallery needing to fulfil many different functions at once. Parekowhai’s Détour dominates the single entryway to Toi Art: a visitor will see an array of metal tubing, like construction scaffolding, attached to which (hanging down, or being thrust forward) are paintings and artworks from the National Gallery vaults. Between the artworks are giant plastic creatures—an elephant, for one, and what seems to be a monkey-cum-Tiki.
No less an artwork than Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels are attached to Parekowhai’s Duchamp-inspired contraption, amidst Frances Hodgkinses and Theo Schoon photographs, to name just a couple. This happened to be my first time seeing the Northland Panels in its material form, after having grown up seeing reproductions—an exciting moment for an art historically interested New Zealander. Far from making McCahon’s inspiring and emblematic canvases accessible to New Zealanders and to visitors, Toi Art’s choice of display both interfered with any clear view, and risked the material future of McCahon’s canvases for generations after mine. The way the scaffolding structure was placed meant that visitors to Toi Art are ducking under and between different metal poles to see different artworks, and one of these poles was placed directly in front of McCahon’s canvases. The panels are “paintings to walk past”, as McCahon described them, but Parekowhai’s artwork seems determined to make this impossible. Even worse, in the time I was there I witnessed a shoulder brushing the fourth canvas (they are displayed completely unprotected), while the only docent nearby was busy telling frustrated visitors that they could not duck under a nearby pole lest they damage the Hodgkins hanging from it.
My criticism, to be very clear, isn’t about Parekowhai’s artwork, which, in a different context and with different artworks attached to the contraption, I might thoroughly enjoy. My criticism is that Te Papa’s confusion of its role not only hinders New Zealanders from being able to clearly and directly access and understand the kind of visual culture that artworks like McCahon’s Northland Panels represent (and I certainly could not enjoy or understand the panels as they deserved to be), but the institution’s choices even risk those artworks’ existence for future generations. Détour is, quite simply, an enormous and glaring symbol of the problem with the National Art Gallery’s inclusion within Te Papa. Parekowhai’s giant plastic elephant (appropriately titled Standing on Memory), which rears itself up on top of the contraption, seemed to me in the end to represent the weight of the institution risking crushing all the art beneath it—and, if not crushing it, then being simply so distracting as to render all other traces of our visual culture irrelevant. (I wonder, even, if Parekowhai has used his commission to subvert Te Papa with this kind of message; but if so, that idea seems to have been largely lost).
And there we see that the problem with the National Gallery’s inclusion in Te Papa isn’t about space or budget at all. It is instead that the very role of a National Gallery has been forgotten and confused within a larger institution, and that the context of viewing our visual culture within a larger museum—after you visit the Earthquake House, before you go see the Giant Squid—undermines the very goals of promoting and making accessible that culture. There is a legitimate criticism of the common ‘sealing off’ of ‘high’ art from the rest of culture, but if there is one place where this sealing off might be defended it is at the National Gallery. It is necessary there because the National Gallery is the preserver of visual culture of last resort—there is nowhere else to finally understand what it means to be a New Zealander through our art, or to study and research a collection as large, broad and significant as the National Gallery’s. Most of us will see the Northland Panels and other masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having McCahon’s work levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of the many foreign visitors who come through Te Papa’s doors.
Toi Art does nothing to reduce the need for a stand-alone national gallery. It simply brings into relief the absolute necessity of one.