It’s a warm Saturday morning. Outside Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū a jazz band plays, children bop, adults sprawl on the grass. Inside, visitors linger in the darkness of Chasing the Light, the enigmatically silent filmed fireworks by video artist Steve Carr. Over coffee, new director Blair Jackson is looking pleased. If there is a single recipe for his vision for the Gallery it is this: one-off shows of new work by New Zealand artists, more music, more interaction, more visitors across the age spectrum.
It is over six months since Jackson, previously deputy director and programmes manager, took over the reins from previous director Jenny Harper and already the former arts graduate from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts is making his mark.
The recent Art Do fundraiser marked the end of the large sit-down gala dinners that raised money for five major artworks (by Michael Parekowhai, Bill Culbert, Martin Creed, Bridget Riley and the yet-to-arrive work by Ron Mueck) signifying five years since the Gallery was closed after the earthquakes. This year’s event was an altogether noisier and more inclusive affair with artists, including Nathan Pohio and Tony de Lautour, on the turntables, Warren and Mahoney-designed lounge spaces, Karen Walker-styled cocktail bar, limited-edition beer (Three Boys Brewery) and wine (Greystone Wines) flashing labels by artists Zina Swanson and Judy Millar and a cake “joint venture” by artist Dan Arps and local cake-maker Cakes by Anna.
About 450 people turned up to the event, raising $90,000 to help New Zealand artists create major works with the Gallery. As Christchurch Art Gallery Foundation board chair Mike Stenhouse told The Press, Art Do was a new initiative to build an annual fund “that enables New Zealand artists to be as ambitious as our city itself.”
Reflecting the way the Gallery should operate in the city?
“Completely,” says Jackson. “I think audience expectations of what a gallery offers has changed. We wanted to create a situation that engaged patrons and donors and collectors and artists in one event. People want a more interactive experience, they want to be more involved. The city is new and innovative and there is a new sense of design and architecture and creativity. I think the Gallery has a role to play in terms of encouraging that kind of curiosity and creative thinking.”
Such a role does not come out of a curatorial handbook.
“The interesting galleries for me are the ones that respond to their community or their environment. There are great curators and great artists making stuff internationally but sometimes that can look a bit the same, no matter where it is. I like those galleries where you get a sense of the community and the place they are in. We can show the same shows as another gallery, we can have similar works in the collection, we can also engage with the same artists but we have a different tone and different ways of telling that story.”
Part of that difference, he says, is defined by the curators.
“We have five curators and they all have a different voice, different personality and different ideas about an artist’s work or the Gallery’s collection and I am really interested in that coming through, rather than a neutral voice of the institution.”
Visitor numbers will always be a measure of the Gallery’s success. The number of visitors for 2016 was just over 320,000, still lower than pre-earthquake figures of 470,000 in 2009 and 530,000 in 2010. But for Jackson, visitor satisfaction, gauged through visitor surveys, is a much better measure.
And it is not just about the art. While the earthquakes presented opportunities that allowed the creative arts to be “a little bit more obvious”, they also positioned the Gallery as a community space.
“For a while the main reason for visitors to come to the Gallery was social as well as artistic. Even now, I love people hanging out with their friends in the foyer – I love it even more when they go and look at shows.”
These shows will continue to include large one-artist retrospectives and big name touring exhibitions – Gordon Walters: New Visions opens on 24 November – but Jackson says he is also keen to include more “interesting thematic shows” and smaller individual artists’ projects that will lead to new work – projects such as Steve Carr’s Chasing the Light and the new collaborative video/installation work Genetekker Archaic by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward.
Another blockbuster? Another Ron Mueck?
“I am a bit uncomfortable about the idea of a blockbuster – it’s a crap term anyway. Mueck turned out to be a ‘blockbuster’ (135,000 paying visitors wandered through the startlingly over- or under-sized lifelike figures) but we didn’t set out to have a show to make records. My focus is working with artists and curators to create new work and engaging exhibitions – operating on a national level more than an international level. We have really good relationships with lots of galleries internationally so it might be that we borrow some great works from their collection and build a show around them but we can also develop our own exhibitions and projects that will engage our audiences in different ways.”
With an acquisition budget now recovered from its 2015 cutbacks, Jackson is keen to apply that to more work by New Zealand-based artists. “We have an international collection and international acquisitions help to contextualise a lot of New Zealand work but I’m more interested in collecting that reflects our exhibitions programme – so it would have more of a New Zealand focus.”
Fundraising will play an important role in its acquisition programme, but that is an increasingly competitive space, “so we are keen to keep the way we fundraise fresh and exciting, to make the idea of philanthropy part of a broader group of people’s thinking and to use fundraising to help artists create new work – it might not be a collection item but it is about creating the opportunity for that artist to make something more ambitious.”
Overall, there is no radical change going down at the Gallery. Rather, he says, there is a shift in focus, a gentle but persistent nudge to help Christchurch become a centre “where really interesting new works and exhibitions can be made and shown.”
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