View of Auckland. Photo by Andrew Clifford for ArtAsiaPacific.


New Zealand
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Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, but its geographic distance from the rest of the world and its comparatively small population of 1.5 million leaves it with something of an inferiority complex. We Aucklanders worry about the national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, being in the capital, Wellington; that we have no dedicated contemporary art museum; and that we have to travel to Australia to see major events or works. A popular New Zealand maxim is that we need to think smarter rather than bigger—such ingenuity is a quality that should come naturally to the arts.

In late 2010, the New Zealand government merged seven cities and districts in the Auckland region into a single entity, colloquially known as the “Auckland Super City,” governed by the Auckland Council. There was anxiety that this centralization of local government would result in a parallel streamlining (read “closing”) of regional arts facilities. The most conspicuous speed wobble to date has been an untimely media leak about Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) director Chris Saines needing to reapply for his own, redefined, role as part of a business-oriented management restructure. The Council backed down after the art and museum communities made it clear that they didn’t want their lead institution tampered with. This episode highlighted the awkward fit for the gallery in the new “Regional Facilities” unit, which also manages the city’s zoo, sports stadiums and conference centers. Mainstream art marketing is seldom inspiring, so I shudder to imagine the taglines we’ll get if marketing resources are merged.

The gallery was already in the limelight, having reopened in late 2011 after a three-year redevelopment that combined earthquake-proofing and restoration work with a dramatic, award-winning new extension. The end result is a reported 50-percent increase in exhibition space, though this statistic is muddied by the sale of their adjacent contemporary annex, the New Gallery. This is about to reopen as a boutique mall, despite earlier indications that it would become a nonprofit visual arts center. Without a building dedicated to contemporary art, the gallery is left with two main temporary exhibition areas that are also used for touring blockbusters, so far including rock-music photography and an overview of modern masters, “Degas to Dalí.” It will be interesting to see how much space is allocated for the next Auckland Triennial, the gallery’s major contribution to contemporary discourse, which opens in May and this time around is being curated by a significant international figure, Hou Hanru.

Although Auckland is blessed with many small experimental artist-run spaces and commercial galleries, there is no substantial, central contemporary art institution, private or public. The main established contemporary gallery, Artspace, a government-backed, noncommercial body, is in the best position to fill this niche if it could expand from its convenient but modest spaces. When AAG withdrew from the New Gallery, there were rumors that Artspace would inherit part of the building, but commerce prevailed.

There has also been renewed discussion about whether Te Papa Tongarewa (which absorbed the National Art Gallery in a 1992 restructure) does enough for art or adequately serves the rest of the country. A stand-alone art museum has been mooted for Wellington, and there is also a suggestion that Auckland should have a “Te Papa North,” providing Auckland with an iconic building for its redeveloped waterfront. Perhaps Artspace could get involved, or one of the suburban art spaces that have enriched the contemporary scene of late, particularly those associated with the defunct South Auckland councils.

In December 2012, it was announced that Chris Saines was leaving AAG to head the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, opening the way for a new director to introduce fresh thinking to match the facilities that Saines had helped to create. Perhaps AAG’s next step should be the overdue addition of a dedicated curator for Pacific, or even Asian, art. And if we do achieve a midsized art institution for the city, it will be important how it defines itself. There has been much debate on ideas of contemporaneity, as well as discussions about distinctions between art and customary cultures, which are largely constructs of Western systems. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that some of the liveliest exhibition programs of late have been in the smaller galleries of south Auckland, home to significant Māori, Polynesian and Asian populations. If Auckland can find a distinctive way to harness this energy and these ideas, it would have a lot less reason to worry about keeping up with its larger neighbors.