Life is short but art endures?

by Hamish Keith / 15 September, 2012
Works are too often shifted, destroyed, packed away or forgotten.
Seven Ages of Man

Life is short but art endures. That is a line from Hippocrates that seems to have little application in our fair land. “Life is short and art gets the biff” seems a more appropriate aphorism. What is it in the national DNA that gives us such a callous disregard for works of art in our public spaces? Little wonder a reconstructed bus stop took the National Contemporary Art Award in the Waikato last month. The time between buses seems a near perfect fit for our cultural attention span. Also last month, Helen Clark, former Prime Minister and, more to the point, former Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, launched a bumper book of Pat Hanly at a glittering affair at Auckland Art Gallery. This Ron Sang publication is a fine piece of work and a fitting memorial to the oeuvre of one of our most joyful, engaging, engaged and vigorous painters.

Almost every work he made is in the book. It is about the closest New Zealand publishing has yet come to a complete visual catalogue of a New Zealand artist’s work. Hanly was also one of our most accomplished producers of public murals. He worked on a scale, and with an energy, few other artists have matched. There are six of them: Rainbow Pieces (Christchurch Town Hall, 1971), Seven Ages of Man (Auckland Medical School, 1975), Prelude to a Journey (Auckland International Airport, 1977), Golden Age (Auckland School of Architecture, 1981), Vacation (Auckland Club, 1989) and Metropolitan Unity (Aotea Centre, Auckland, 1990). I knew these works well. Of the six, I commissioned four, and of the six, only one, Seven Ages of Man, remains intact in its original site. One is in an earthquake red-stickered building, one survives only partially, two have been relocated, one of those “reworked” by another artist, and one has vanished.

This is an appalling record. In any other civilised community it would be a national disgrace. Here it goes unnoticed as bureaucrats spend their time imagining they are nourishing the nation’s art by writing opaque reports. It is a story endlessly repeated – public works shifted, destroyed, packed away and forgotten and, in one infamous episode involving a major Colin McCahon, cut up and turned into a packing case. (This by the national airline, which, by the way, has done nothing much for public art since.)

There is a chilling across-the-board consistency to this artistic massacre. Hardly a knowledgeable soul, for instance, would question that John Scott was one of our greatest architects, yet two of his key works have had to be constantly protected from the demolisher ’s bulldozer – one of those works in the care of a religious order and the other a government department charged with conservation. Even the born-again Auckland Council would rather risk $40 million of its ratepayers’ cash propping up a dodgy stadium than restore the great historic theatre that rots in its main street. Shame on all of you. ­
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