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How to collect great art the ‘wrong’ way

Chelsea Nichols explores four things we can learn from the history of collecting modern art at New Zealand’s National Art Gallery


<P data-associrn="37948"></P> <P>In 1929, artist WH Allen called it ‘a dumping ground … for second and third rate pictures and statuary’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> For Bill Sutton 30 years later it was ‘provincial’ and ‘parochial’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> And by 1965, the National Art Gallery (NAG) – Te Papa’s predecessor – had yet to acquire a single work by Rita Angus, Colin McCahon or Toss Woollaston, whose paintings were already hanging in public galleries in Auckland and Christchurch.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P> <P>I’d heard all of these criticisms of the national collection, and more, when I started as Curator Modern Art at Te Papa in December 2013. And yet, as I spent the next six months immersing myself in the museum’s modern art collection, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the richness of its treasures. </P> <P>Moreover, as I researched how some of the international artworks ended up in New Zealand, fascinating stories about the people behind the collection began to emerge. By looking at how the international modern art collection developed in different periods, I started to get a sense of how it had been shaped by individual tastes, different institutional policies, and changing attitudes toward modern art throughout the 20th century.</P> <P>It is often easier to point out the weaknesses and inevitable gaps in an art collection than it is to think critically about how to build upon its strengths. But as I help to grow the collection myself, I think there are useful lessons about contemporary collecting to be drawn from some of its past highlights. This essay attempts to do just that, by looking at four key periods of collecting modern art in the NAG from the late 1930s to early 1980s. What lessons can we learn from each? </P> <P><STRONG>Lesson #1: Respond to public tastes to build excitement about the collection</STRONG></P> <P>The National Art Gallery opened its doors in 1936, finally realising plans that had been in the works for over 25 years. But it still faced some significant hurdles when it came to growing an art collection worthy of a ‘national’ gallery: budgets for acquisitions were tiny, it was far removed from the European art centres, and the prevailing culture was highly conservative. </P> <P data-associrn="43688"></P> <P>Most of the NAG’s initial collection was donated by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, which had collected over 300 art works in anticipation of the new gallery.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> The paintings were quite conservative in comparison to the kinds of avant-garde art being made in Europe in the same period – there was certainly nothing by Picasso, Duchamp, or Matisse to be found here yet. Nevertheless, many of these early acquisitions responded to modernism in their experimentation with colour, form, and subject matter. For example, expatriate artist Rhona Haszard’s coastal landscape <EM>Finistère</EM> (1926) is remarkably bold in its striking green and purple palette and simplified shapes.</P> <P>Many of the international art works in the initial collection were purchased from John Baillie, an expatriate New Zealand art dealer who ran a successful gallery in London. In 1912, he carried out the colossal logistical task of shipping 400 paintings, drawings, and prints from Britain to Wellington. The Wellington City Council promised £1,000 toward the purchase of works from the Baillie exhibition for the future national art gallery, but only if the public raised an additional £5,000. Newspapers ran daily stories and tallies of the donations to drum up excitement, and the public could vote on which art works they thought should be purchased. Even schoolchildren donated their pocket money towards the purchase of art works.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="44022"></P> <P>Frank Craig’s <EM>Goblin market</EM> (1911) was one of the public favourites. This strange and wonderful painting is a sumptuous woodland scene depicting goblins offering fruit to a young woman – an allegorical picture warning of the dangers of giving in to sexual temptation, based on Christina Rossetti’s 1859 poem. A century later, the work still delights with its freshness: its dark whimsy captivated me from the first time I saw it and reveals wonderful new details every time I look closely.</P> <P>Today, museum collecting is often done behind closed doors by a small number of art specialists. How might we better respond to the tastes and interests of the public? Is there a way to open the process of art collecting up and make it more transparent and inclusive? There aren’t necessarily any easy answers to these questions. But <EM>Goblin market</EM> shows us that not only did a voting process result in a number of strong acquisitions, it also helped generate a sense of community ownership and support for the collection.</P> <P><STRONG>Lesson #2: Choose art works that genuinely move you</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="43746"></P><P data-associrn="39515"></P> <P>[From the late 1940s, the National Art Gallery employed a representative in London to recommend international art works for the collection. The first person to officially take the role was Ernest Heber Thompson (1891–1971), a well-respected expatriate artist and member of the Royal Society of Painter–Etchers and Engravers, with wide knowledge of the British art scene. Under Thompson’s influence, international art acquisitions became a little bolder. While the focus remained mostly on representational art, his judicious recommendations included important works by several key 20th-century British artists, including Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, and Jacob Epstein. </P> <P>But what is most powerful about Thompson’s choices was his keen eye for art works with a strong emotional impact and high level of technical skill. Although he certainly recognised the growing importance of abstraction, he had little serious interest in it. In 1961, he wrote to the director of the NAG to say, </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>The ever recurring abstract business keeps raising its head. Have you a room… devoted to modern art? A sort of chamber of horrors. It is becoming increasingly persistent here.</EM></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Instead, Thompson advocated for works like Robert Buhler’s melancholy portrait of the mercurial John Minton (about 1949), Henry Lamb’s tragic masterpiece <EM>Death of a peasant</EM> (1911), and Winifred Knight’s complex and eerie biblical scene <EM>The marriage at Cana</EM> (1923). Although his choices were not necessarily radical, they nonetheless helped gently push the gallery’s conservative tastes into a more sophisticated appreciation of what international modern art had to offer. </P> <P>The lesson to be learned here is that the best choices are always art works that truly move you in one way or another. Thompson did not attempt to collect with the fickle trends of the art world, but remained true to the artistic values he upheld in his own work. This guided him to acquire some truly important and powerful art works. </P> <P><STRONG>Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to take some risks and push some boundaries</STRONG></P> <P>In 1965, Mary Chamot (1899–1993) took over from Thompson as the National Art Gallery’s London representative. Chamot was a curator at the Tate Gallery, and an expert in Russian avant-garde art and modern British painting. A charming portrait of Chamot by Nadia Benois shows the art historian's strong features, but doesn’t fully reveal her dynamic character as a doughty – albeit slightly prim – crusader for modern art. Chamot pushed the conservative gallery to develop more open-minded attitudes to abstraction and other forms of avant-garde art, helping to build a stronger and more daring collection of international modern art. With her guidance and contacts, the NAG acquired works by some of the leading European artists of the 20th century, including Sonia Delaunay, Ben Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth.</P> <P data-associrn="40701"></P> <P>Perhaps Chamot’s most remarkable addition to the NAG’s collection were arranging a gift of seven paintings by Natalia Goncharova, whose influential Neo-Primitivist paintings have reached eye-watering prices at recent auctions.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> Goncharova was a leading figure in the Moscow avant-garde scene in the early 20th century; along with her partner, Mikhail Larionov, she became world famous for her radical costume designs for the Ballets Russes. Despite her celebrated artistic status, however, Goncharova died in poverty and relative obscurity in Paris in 1962. Although the rest of the world had some catching up to do, Chamot already recognised Goncharova’s significance, writing several books on the artist in the 1970s. When Larionov’s second wife began to downsize her husband’s personal collection after his death, Chamot convinced her to gift three early Goncharovas to the NAG. Chamot later donated four additional Goncharova paintings from her own collection.</P> <P>The NAG was right to trust Chamot, who had a knack for selecting work by artists before they were truly appreciated by the wider art world – and before they became prohibitively expensive on the art market. She secured some incredible works which would have been well beyond the gallery’s reach just a few years later, and her taste and expertise left an indelible mark on the collection.</P> <P><STRONG>Lesson #4: Lesser-known works by big names can be surprisingly good</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="37508"></P><P data-associrn="44587"></P> <P>From the late 1970s, the National Art Gallery began to seriously address some of the gaps in its collection of international modern art. Many artists who had emerged as the most important figures of 20th century art were not represented at all. However, the staggering prices demanded for paintings by artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, or even the much younger Jasper Johns were simply out of New Zealand’s reach: at the height of the art market boom in the 1980s, Picasso’s <EM>The marriage of Pierrette</EM> (1905) sold for US$49.3 million dollars – more than 10 times New Zealand’s annual budget for arts at the time. </P> <P>One of the solutions was to turn to more affordable works on paper. On the surface, this does not seem such an unusual strategy. But as a general rule, collecting works on paper was regarded as less desirable than, say, oil paintings on canvas, because they can’t be on display as long. And since most ‘modern masters’ earned their reputations through either their paintings or sculptures, logic held that the gallery should try to represent what the artists were best known for. </P> <P>And yet, the NAG’s decision to collect works on paper proved to be a canny strategy. This was in no small part due to the influence of Dr Anne Kirker, then the esteemed Curator of Prints and Drawings. Her dual expertise in printmaking and international art ensured that the chosen works were certainly not second-rate works by first-rate artists. Rather, they represented interesting and experimental methods reflected in an artist’s larger practice. </P> <P>For instance, dream imagery and techniques like automatic drawing can be found in the collection’s prints by surrealist artists André Masson, Man Ray, and Max Ernst. Works on paper by pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Hamilton use printmaking to explore the proliferation of visual images in mass culture like advertising or comic books. In Jasper Johns’ lithograph <EM>Fragment – according to what – leg and chair</EM> (1971), the artist has actually remixed elements from his watershed painting <EM>According to what</EM> (1964).<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> The gallery even managed to add a few minor prints by Picasso to the collection, including a wonderful 1954 lithograph entitled <EM>Le modèle et deux personnages</EM>. </P> <P>Although they may not be signature works, these works on paper provide interesting glimpses into unexpected facets of an artist’s practice. Once again, this period shows us that by putting aside the ‘right’ way to collect art, we can build an astonishingly rich and unique art collection.</P> <P><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>WH Allen, ‘Impressions of New Zealand art’, Art in New Zealand, vol. 1, no. 4, June 1929, p. 215.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>WA Sutton, ‘Art gallery’, letter to the editor, Evening Post, 15 June 1961, p. 12. </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>William McAloon, ‘Introduction’, Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2009, pp. 12–13.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>McAloon, p. 6.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>‘National Art Gallery – Voting for Pictures’, Evening Post, 4 May 1912, p. 3; ‘National Gallery – Voting for Pictures’, Dominion, 4 May 1912, p. 4; ‘Baillie Collection: Some notes on the pictures’, Evening Post, 27 April 1912, p. 9; ‘The Art Gallery’, Wairarapa Daily Times,11 July 1912, p. 5.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Letter from Ernest Heber Thompson to Stuart Maclennan, 12 February 1961. </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>See: Bridget Moriarity, ‘Artist Dossier: Natalia Goncharova’, Blouin Artinfo, 26 January 2009, <A href="http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/270533/artist-dossier-natalia-goncharova">http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/270533/artist-dossier-natalia-goncharova</A> [21 July 2014] </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Holland Cotter, ‘A pivotal Jasper Johns is a show’s centerpiece’, New York Times, 14 February 1992, <A href="http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/14/arts/review-art-a-pivotal-jasper-johns-is-a-show-s-centerpiece.html">http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/14/arts/review-art-a-pivotal-jasper-johns-is-a-show-s-centerpiece.html</A> [12 August 2014]. </FONT></LI></OL> <P><BR/><STRONG>Chelsea Nichols</STRONG> is Curator Modern Art at Te Papa, where her collection-based research broadly addresses the relationships between international and New Zealand modern art from 1900–1970. Particular areas of interest include the influence of surrealism on New Zealand art, and histories of collecting curiosities and oddities. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Oxford, where her thesis examined representations of curious bodies in contemporary art.</P> <P data-associrn="1450996"></P>
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Nadia Benois, Portrait of Mary Chamot, 1927, coloured chalks,
Gift of Mary Chamot, London, 1983.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Rhona Haszard, Finistère, 1926, oil on canvas,
Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Frank Craig, Goblin market, 1911, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1912 by public subscription.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Henry Lamb II, Death of a peasant, 1911, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1959.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Winifred Knights, The marriage at Cana, 1923, oil on canvas,
Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Natalia S. Goncharova, Porteuse de raisins, circa 1911, oil on canvas,
Gift of Mme Larionov, Paris, 1973.
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Jasper Johns, Fragment - according to what - leg and chair, 1971, lithograph,
Purchased 1979 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
© Jasper Johns/Gemini G.E.L./VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Pablo Picasso, Le modèle et deux personnages, 1954, lithograph,
Gift of Frank H. Canaday, USA, 1974.
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Picasso. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz