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Jess Clifford on the 1980s at the National Art Gallery


<P data-associrn="1437979"></P> <P><STRONG>A long-cherished dream</STRONG></P> <P>Amid much fanfare, the National Art Gallery opened in Buckle Street, Mount Cook, Wellington, on 1 August 1936. The event was momentous. Indeed, as a review in the <EM>Evening Post</EM> newspaper noted:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>A long-cherished dream has at last been fulfilled. New Zealand now has a National Art Gallery &#8211; a gallery which in many respects has no superior south of the Line, and which compares more than favourably with any of the renowned Old World galleries. … The occasion of the opening of the National Art Gallery is undoubtedly the most important one in the history of the Dominion’s cultural progress.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>That ‘cultural progress’ was reflected in the exhibitions that were held at the National Art Gallery &#8211; the NAG &#8211; from then until its heyday in the 1980s.</P> <P>Over the summer of 2013&#8211;2014, I worked on a project researching the history of exhibitions at the NAG from its opening in 1936 to ‘Day One’ at Te Papa, its successor, in 1998. The list of exhibitions I produced was about more than just recording dates and titles &#8211; the exhibitions tell the story of an institution, and, more widely, of art in New Zealand. </P> <P><STRONG>Exhibitions of the 1980s</STRONG></P> <P>It is the exhibitions of the 80s that really show the NAG’s growing confidence and maturity, and the attendant developments in New Zealand society and culture. During this decade, both the NAG and the nation moved away from dependence on European, particularly British, cultural traditions, to establish their own particular cultural identity. </P> <P>The NAG’s attentions turned inwards, to the history of its collections and its role as a national institution, and also outwards, to developments in contemporary art &#8211; including the New Zealand artists shaking up the art world. The exhibitions in this period self-consciously addressed both the NAG’s history and its future. </P> <P data-associrn="38061"></P> <P data-associrn="44391"></P> <P><STRONG><EM>The First Fifty Years</EM></STRONG></P> <P>One of the strengths of the NAG’s permanent collection was its comprehensive holdings of modern British paintings and drawings. Starting in April 1980, these works were meticulously researched and catalogued for an illustrated publication &#8211; a process that took 18 months and involved the entire staff. From approximately 200 entries, 54 were selected for exhibition.</P> <P><EM>The First Fifty Years: British art in the twentieth century</EM>, opened on 24 October 1981, and closed on 20 January 1982. Exhibitions in the 1980s generally opened for around six weeks, and the much-longer showing of <EM>The First Fifty Years</EM> reflects the massive effort required to produce the catalogue and mount the exhibition. It was at that point the most significant internally organised exhibition undertaken by the NAG.</P> <P>Works by the members of London’s Camden Town Group, including Walter Sickert’s <EM>The Blue Hat</EM> (1914), were afforded pride of place, as if the NAG couldn’t quite believe its own good fortune in acquiring art of such international standing. The exhibition also included works by expatriate New Zealander Frances Hodgkins. Tellingly, her painting <EM>Cut Melons</EM> (about 1931) was offered to, and rejected by, the NAG in 1944 &#8211; only to be purchased in 1980 as the NAG sought to address past errors in judgment.</P> <P><EM>The First Fifty Years</EM> represented the first major review of an important part of the NAG’s permanent collection &#8211; it was, in a sense, an exhibition about the institution’s own history. As Neil Rowe wrote in a 1981 review for the <EM>New Zealand Times</EM>:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr><P> <P><EM>The First Fifty Years</EM> and its accompanying excellent catalogue is the first visible result of the gallery's new found professionalism and is the first of several such exhibitions and publications designed to review and present the national collection. …&nbsp; The National Art Gallery has finally lived up to its name.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="41320"></P> <P><STRONG><EM>Oh, to be in England</EM></STRONG></P> <P>The NAG continued its analysis of its permanent collections with the exhibition <EM>Oh to be in England</EM> (14 January &#8211; 15 May 1988), which celebrated Victorian paintings and works on paper. Various items of furniture and applied arts were loaned from the National Museum to create a Victorian context in which to view the period works &#8211; sentimental, highly accessible, or ‘chocolate box’ pictures. A tongue-in-cheek bookend to the <EM>The First Fifty Years</EM> exhibition that opened the decade, the show also focused on British works in the collection, but had quite different intentions.</P> <P>Whilst the exhibition explored aspects of Victorian taste, it also reflected on the attitudes of New Zealanders towards the visual arts earlier in the 20th century. Many of the works in the exhibition had been purchased by a philanthropic colonial public, concerned that ‘good British art’ should be bought for this country’s emerging galleries. In a move that was both revealing and entertaining, the exhibition exposed the paradox of works that formed the beginnings of the national collection, like Frederick Hall’s <EM>The Result of High Living</EM> (1892), yet were no longer considered to be good enough to be exhibited. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly developing critical and contemporary art scene, the exhibition was progress incarnate, showing just how far the NAG had come in a short period of time.</P> <P data-associrn="398460"></P> <P><STRONG><EM>Acquisitions Reviewed 1979&#8211;1986</EM></STRONG></P> <P>Emphasis for the NAG in the 1980s was not only on furthering exhibiting and documenting its collections, but also on acquiring new works that were felt to represent the state of contemporary art in New Zealand. For example, a feature of the NAG’s acquisitions policy in the 1980s was the decision to commit itself to an active programme of photographic purchases, with works like Laurence Aberhart’s now-iconic architectural images entering the permanent collection. </P> <P>Launched in 1980, the annual acquisitions exhibitions and their accompanying checklists gave the public some idea of the breadth of the NAG’s collecting activities. In 1987, whilst acquisition policies were being reassessed, the exhibition, <EM>Acquisitions Reviewed 1979&#8211;1986</EM> (5 September &#8211; 29 November 1987), was mounted in order to look back at some of the decisions made during this period. </P> <P>The show presented a selection of works by New Zealand and international artists in a wide range of media, styles, and techniques. Both self-aware and transparent, the exhibition was intended as a starting point for a discussion of the perceived strengths and shortcomings of the NAG’s acquisitions, and, in turn, of the present and future role of the national institution. </P> <P><STRONG><EM>The British Show</EM></STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1437981"></P> <P data-associrn="1437982"></P> <P>The decade was also marked by a focus on bringing contemporary overseas exhibitions to the NAG. <EM>The British Show</EM> (5 December 1985 &#8211; 26 January 1986) was the first major exhibition of contemporary international art to visit New Zealand since 1974, and was shown at the NAG after a highly acclaimed tour of four Australian galleries. Selected by curators at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, the works in the exhibition reflected recent developments in British art, and consisted of painting, sculpture and installations, video works, and documentation on performance artists. </P> <P>For New Zealand’s nascent contemporary art scene, and the status of the NAG as a world-class gallery, the exhibition was of national significance &#8211; as proved when the then Prime Minister, David Lange, gave the exhibition’s opening address.</P> <P>Whilst the notion of an exhibition of British art harked back to colonial dependencies &#8211; something noted by reviews at the time &#8211; the show was challenging&nbsp; and provocative, and attracted widespread public response both from those who loved it and those who hated it. This was, in a sense, the point. The NAG’s senior curator, Anne Kirker, said at the time: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>While there’s certainly more awareness than there used to be, there’s still a huge bourgeois mentality out there that prefers the comfort of a Monet. <EM>The British Show</EM> is challenging, a hit in the arm. What we’ve done is put Wellington on the map participating in this type of exhibition alongside other countries.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P><STRONG>Shed 11 &#8211; the Temporary/Contemporary</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1437980"></P> <P>Due to the financial limitations on buying international work, temporary touring exhibitions were a fundamental part of the NAG's programme. To this end, in 1986, a warehouse on Wellington’s waterfront was renovated and opened as Shed 11 &#8211; the Temporary/Contemporary, in order to better accommodate contemporary art and large-scale installation works. Inspired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Shed 11 was a dedicated exhibition space for contemporary art, run with an ethos of experimentation and innovation.</P> <P>Hot on the heels of <EM>The British Show</EM>, the first exhibition to be staged in Shed 11 &#8211; the Temporary/Contemporary was <EM>Wild, Visionary, Spectral: New German Art</EM> (11 July &#8211; 24 August 1986). The show consisted of over 50 paintings and sculptures by the most important artists working in Germany during the previous 20 years, including four works by the contemporary German master, Joseph Beuys. <EM>Wild, Visionary, Spectral</EM> was the most comprehensive and contemporary exhibition of new international art to be held in Australia or New Zealand that decade. </P> <P data-associrn="36996"></P> <P>Further noteworthy international exhibitions held at Shed 11 include shows featuring two of the top post-modernist artists of the 1980s: <EM>Barbara Kruger</EM> (5 March &#8211; 1 May 1988) and <EM>Cindy Sherman</EM> (17 June &#8211; 13 August 1989). These shows were decidedly coups for the NAG &#8211; especially as both were curated in-house by NAG staff. The Kruger exhibition was curated by Jenny Harper, and the artist herself travelled to New Zealand for the opening and to deliver a lecture. Curatorial responsibility for Cindy Sherman was taken by the NAG’s then-director, Luit Bieringa, with works coming directly from the artist’s dealer and significant overseas collections.</P> <P>A large-scale, site-specific installation by the world-renowned French artist, Daniel Buren, <EM>Kei Te Anganui/at the Opposite &#8211; Construction on site</EM> (9 March &#8211; 6 March 1990), marked the zenith of activities at the Temporary/Contemporary. The work included Buren’s characteristic striped canvas, and was the product of the artist’s direct engagement with Shed 11 as a space for art and intervention. Shed 11 was, however, closed for further exhibitions from mid 1991.</P> <P><STRONG>‘We are going to try and curate more shows from our own point of view instead of just accepting shows curated overseas.’<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Luit Bieringa</STRONG></P> <P>Whilst major institutional and curatorial energies were directed towards such international shows, there was an equal drive for the NAG’s programming to reflect, in the words of New Zealand artist Toss Woollaston, ‘the value of locality in art.’<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> The exhibition <EM>Content/Context : A survey of recent New Zealand art</EM> (19 September &#8211; 30 November (Part One); 12 December 1986 &#8211; 1 February 1987 (Part Two), came about in response to a need expressed by both artists and gallery visitors for a more substantial coverage of contemporary New Zealand art, at a time when there was an increasing awareness of art-making in other countries.</P> <P>Despite the potential constraints of the NAG’s inherited collections, and the national responsibility that might have limited its flexibility, one of the gallery’s primary objectives in the 1980s was a focus on the here and now. Taking its brief to a large extent from the two-yearly <EM>Perspecta </EM>exhibitions that were staged by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, <EM>Content/Context</EM>; was testament to the NAG’s ongoing commitment to contemporary developments.</P> <P>It was hoped that the exhibition, a comprehensive review of the visual arts in New Zealand, would justify itself as an ongoing event, and, like the <EM>Perspecta</EM> series, enable a biannual analysis, with changing curatorial inputs and perspectives. This, however, never eventuated. </P> <P><STRONG>Emerging biculturalism</STRONG> </P> <P data-associrn="1438023"></P> <P>The NAG’s staging of critical exhibitions of contemporary M&#257;ori art was also evidence of its local focus and the growing awareness of the place of biculturalism in the New Zealand art scene. The exhibition 3 <EM>M&#257;ori Women Artists</EM> (9 October &#8211; 8 November 1987) consisted of a selection of paintings by Robyn Kahukiwa, Emily Karaka and Kura Rewiri-Thorsen. Similarly, <EM>Taki Toru &#8211; Three M&#257;ori Artists</EM> (15 July &#8211; 28 August 1988), presented major installation works by three important and influential Maori artists: Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt, and Selwyn Muru. </P> <P>The show provided Ralph Hotere with a rare chance to exhibit <EM>Black Phoenix</EM> (1984&#8211;88), a large sculptural installation constructed from the remains of a fire-damaged fishing boat. One of Hotere’s major works, its scale meant that it had only been exhibited on one previous occasion. Para Matchitt’s <EM>Papa K&#257;inga</EM> (1987) recreated an ancestral settlement in four huge house forms constructed from rough-sawn planks. Selwyn Muru showed a large mixed-media work that had been completed at Matchitt’s studio, specifically for <EM>Taki Toru</EM>. As such, the exhibition also demonstrated the NAG’s commitment to supporting living artists by directly commissioning considerable installation works, which might not have been possible without institutional backing.</P> <P><STRONG>Looking back, looking forward</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1437974"></P> <P>It was a sesquicentennial exhibition that marked the end of the decade and reflected the NAG’s striking shift in focus as 1989 became 1990, and the NAG became MoNZ &#8211; the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This was <EM>Treasures and Landmarks from the National Collections/Nga Taonga Me Nga Tohuwhenua Tawhito A Nga Tupuna </EM>(29 February &#8211; 2 September 1990), a major survey of the development of western art in New Zealand. It consisted of a wide range of works from the colonial to the contemporary, drawn from the permanent collections of both the NAG and Te Papa.</P> <P>An important institutional collaboration, <EM>Treasures/Landmarks</EM> continued the NAG’s focus on collection histories, yet signalled a discernible move away from the temporary/contemporary impetus that epitomised much of the preceding decade. In so doing, the exhibition looked forward to the opening of Te Papa, and the coexistence of art and history that now defines that institution.</P> <P>Whilst the innovation and significance of the multi-disciplinary Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa are evident, the combined weight of its institutional apparatus does, to a certain extent, limit its flexibility. In its headily optimistic days of the 1980s, the NAG somehow managed tread the fine line between national institution and contemporary art gallery &#8211; doing a lot with a little, quickly and conscientiously, and having a great time whilst exhibiting great art.</P> <P><BR><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>‘The National Art Gallery, important collections, works of renowned artists, first display in empire tour,’ <EM>Evening Post</EM>, Thursday 30 July 1936, p.5.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Neil Rowe, ‘The British collection reviewed,’ <EM>New Zealand Times</EM>, 15 November 1981, p.10.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Anne Kirker, quoted in ‘The British Show’, <EM>City Magazine</EM>, November 1985, p.117.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Luit Bieringa, quoted in Merrill Coke, ‘Access to Art’, <EM>Air New Zealand Pacific</EM> Way, no. 8, October/November 1986, p.80.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>M T Woollaston, ‘The Value of Locality in Art,’ <EM>Landfall</EM>, vol. 15, no. 1, March 1961, p.74.</FONT></LI></OL>
image

Walter R. Sickert, The blue hat, 1914, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1951 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Frances Hodgkins, Cut melons, circa 1931, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1980 with Special Projects in the Arts funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Frederick Hall, The result of high living, 1892, oil on canvas,
Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936.
© the Artist’s Estate. All Rights Reserved 2016 / Bridgeman Images
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We are unsuitable for framing), 1985, colour photograph face-mounted to acrylic,
Purchased 1986 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
© Barbara Kruger. Reproduced courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Laurence Aberhart, Lodge Concord #39, Papanui, Christchurch, December 1981, 1981, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

David Lange speaking at the opening of The British Show, 1985. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

David Lange speaking at the opening of The British Show, 1985. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

National Art Gallery staff installing work at Shed 11 - the Temporary/Contemporary. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

National Art Gallery staff installing work at Shed 11 - the Temporary/Contemporary. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

Shed 11 - the Temporary/Contemporary. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

Shed 11 - the Temporary/Contemporary. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

The National Art Gallery displays a banner for The British Show, 1985. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

The National Art Gallery displays a banner for The British Show, 1985. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa

Para Matchitt, &lt;EM&gt;Papa K&amp;#257;inga&lt;/EM&gt;, 1987, wood, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1997. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o T&amp;#257;maki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Para Matchitt, Papa Kāinga, 1987, wood, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1997. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

John Davies, &lt;EM&gt;Head (white with lines)&lt;/EM&gt;, 1983&amp;#8211;84, print on fibreglass cast, 1082 mm, Collection of SA McLean, Ireland. On display in The British Show. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa. &#169; John Davies, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

John Davies, Head (white with lines), 1983–84, print on fibreglass cast, 1082 mm, Collection of SA McLean, Ireland. On display in The British Show. Photograph National Art Gallery/Te Papa. © John Davies, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art