Conservative Estimates

Anthony Byrt at the reopening of the Auckland Art Gallery

Left: Outside the Auckland Art Gallery. Right: Auckland Art Gallery director Chris Saines. (Photo: Anthony Byrt)

LAST MONTH’S Auckland Art Fair had been more impressive than I’d expected. So I was excited about two occasions last week in which Auckland’s leading institutions had the opportunity to show what they were made of: Artspace staged the first exhibition by its new, formerly London-based director, Caterina Riva; and the Auckland Art Gallery reopened after a $100 million revamp.

The interaction between the two venues is a vital part of the local scene. For a long time, Artspace’s job was to hold hot coals to the AAG’s feet on behalf of New Zealand’s contemporary artists. Over the years, just about every local figure of any significance has shown there, as well as a serious list of international art stars. But recently, Artspace has lost some of its shine. So it was interesting that Riva had chosen to open her show, which included works by General Idea, Patricia Dauder, and Tobias Kaspar, the night before the AAG’s grand unveiling—perhaps trying to steal a march on Artspace’s old rival (or maybe just capitalizing on the fact that plenty of people would be in town). The exhibition was solid enough, but Riva has barely had time to settle into her new role, and it would be unfair to judge her on this first offering alone. While a few senior artists like Billy Apple and Ruth Watson showed up for the preview, most of the crowd had an art-students-mooching-free-drinks feel.

In contrast, the AAG’s relaunch stretched over days: a Maori blessing at dawn on Thursday, a media preview on Friday morning, a massive party on Friday night, and official speeches on Saturday just before the doors opened to the public. The renovation and extension of the existing building, by Sydney’s Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp and Auckland’s Archimedia, is beautiful. And there is some great New Zealand art on show, as well as an international collection enhanced by American collector Julian Robertson’s recent, generous gift of modernist works. I’d heard that Robertson had flown from the States a day or two before, dropped off the works, and turned straight around again. Given that the Matisses were still being hung during the media preview, it was a believable story.

Left: Curator Natasha Conland, Bill Garcia and writer Sue Gardiner. (Photo: David St George) Right: Artist Peter Robinson and dealer Sue Crockford. (Photo Anthony Byrt)

Plenty, then, to celebrate at Friday night’s party. But it didn’t start well: If you host an invitation-only event that requires RSVPs, you usually know how many people are going to show up. It also means you should have a system in place to get them into the building quickly, especially seeing as it’s winter down here. So the fact that most guests had to wait in a chilly, hour-long queue while their names were ticked off a spreadsheet was pretty lame. I can’t tell you what was said in the speeches, because I wasn’t inside in time to hear them. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have discussed the fact that, despite having a brave new building to play with, AAG director Chris Saines and his team had opted to keep the displays inside it as conservative as possible.

My palms had first started to sweat about this during the media preview. We were led through a democratic drive-by of New Zealand art—a smooth, nationalist story that lacked the courage to single out key figures and give them the space they deserved (“toeing the party line” was how EyeContact’s editor John Hurrell put it). Our greatest artist, Colin McCahon, was given his own room, but it was nowhere near big enough. Other heavy hitters, such as Apple and Gordon Walters, were handled far worse. In general, contemporary art suffered, as the past forty-five years were crammed into three crowded rooms. After the preview, the AAG’s contemporary art curator Natasha Conland (who is very smart and had done her best with an impossible task) took some of us up to the top floor. It was easy to see why: There, she’d been given space to present installations by Dane Mitchell, Peter Robinson, and the artist collective known as “et al.” Each work was great. Each one could breathe. And all rose well above the parochialism being perpetrated downstairs.

For what it’s worth, the party itself was pretty good—once you got inside—although given the amount of superb music produced in New Zealand, the AAG could have done better for entertainment than a wedding-quality cover band. The Australasian art-world turnout (especially curators—Robert Leonard from Brisbane, the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Justin Paton, and Adam Art Gallery director Christina Barton and former City Gallery curator Heather Galbraith from Wellington) showed just how essential a healthy AAG is to this region. But under the celebratory hum were more serious vibrations. “New building, same gallery,” was how one curator described the hang to me. “Provincial” was an artist’s more direct admonishment. By 10:30 PM, it was clear that I could either stay and try to dance away my concerns to a corny version of “Superstition,” or go home, pour a strong drink, and start writing. Guess which one I did.

Left: Artist Richard Maloy and designer Warren Olds. (Photo Anthony Byrt). Artists Lisa Reihana and Fear Brampton. (Photo: David St George)