PRINT January 1998

International Shorts

Te Papa

It won’t open until February, but New Zealand’s artists are already complaining about Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand). Created during a time of retrenched government funding, Wellington’s $NZ317 million ($192.3 million) museum is a civic anomaly. But surprisingly, it’s not the price tag that is the sore point.

Back in the early ’80s, the New Zealand art community was promised a new home for its lively National Art Gallery, then housed within the dismal National Museum. Following a change in government, the idea of a dedicated National Art Gallery was dropped in favor of a populist museum in which art would be one of four cross-pollinating departments (the others being native Maori culture, social history, and the natural environment).

Although New Zealand artists have long dodged the mandate of national identity, the displays at Te Papa will only reinforce the perception that our art is parochial, recruiting work to illustrate social histories. Colin McCahon’s breakthrough 1958 painting, Northland Panels, will be placed beside a revolutionary refrigerator of similar vintage. And although contemporary artists have been commissioned to create new works, these projects will function more as museum displays than as art. Lisa Reihana’s video installation addresses the identities of sitters in historic photographs, while Maureen Lander’s piece incorporates an interactive project on Maori string games.

Placing art in a larger context is a worthy pursuit. But in trying to be everything to everybody, the high-tech Te Papa may well disappoint the art community.

Robert Leonard