Our man in Venice and New Plymouth: Greg Burke, New Zealand's most important art curator, knows how to make the necessary connections.
The microphone is on the table and the minidisk is recording. Greg Burke is about to sit down, but he is already speaking about the latest news on the Venice Biennale front. There is unabashed enthusiasm in his voice as he tells me who will serve on the jury for this event, the biggest in this year's international visual arts calendar.
Burke is familiar with three of the suspects, but the fourth is a man from Cuba who seems to be making up the numbers. He lights a cigarette and makes the necessary connections: Fumio Nanjo, the deputy director of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, whom Burke worked with on Mediarena: Contemporary Art from Japan; Udo Kittleman, who spoke at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and is working on a Len Lye exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt; and Dan Cameron from the New Museum in New York, who has on more than one occasion taken a shine to the work of Jacqueline Fraser, who in 2001 (along with Peter Robinson) represented New Zealand in Venice.
The Biennale runs from June to November and Burke is the commissioner for the New Zealand pavilion. Last month he left New Plymouth - where he is the director of the Govett-Brewster - for Venice. He has been to Venice before, but in a different role (he curated the Fraser-Robinson exhibition Bi-polar in 2001). The position of commissioner carries a great deal of mana in the art world. In 2001 and 2003, there was a distinct separation between the roles that the curator and the commissioner performed. This year, those positions are more closely associated.
"Outside of the artist, the commissioner is the most important role," Burke says. "It is a very traditional one. The European model tends to be that the commissioner is also the curator. Other countries sometimes split the roles and we tended to do that the last two times." As commissioner in 2001, Jenny Gibbs tended towards the diplomatic work, while all of the curatorial responsibility was on Burke. "We have moved more towards the European model and I would say that I was asked to be the commissioner for my international experience and my relationships with international curators and the international art world. I've been working on that for a while - it just doesn't happen overnight."
When it was announced in the middle of last year that the Auckland-based artist/s et al would represent New Zealand at Venice, some strong feelings were expressed in the media, most notoriously on TV1's former Holmes show. The debate about the infamous "donkey in the dunny" may have dissipated, but there is the sense that the visual arts are still on report - if the controversy radar is on code orange, one suspects it would not take much for the state of alert to shift to red, especially to generate easy political capital in an election year.
Part of what made the et al controversy surprising, though, was how slow and protracted the response from the visual arts community was, especially the team associated with the et al project. "What it showed to me, in hindsight," says Burke, "is that there is a lot of suspicion around [the visual arts] and so questions get put that wouldn't get put to people who have been successful representing their country in sport or singing or some other achievement. And that issue needs to be thought about, not only by journalists, but by the contemporary art community as well."
So, when et al won New Zealand's most prestigious art award, the Walters Prize, last year, it must have a felt like a vindication for the Venice team. Especially as a visual arts expert from overseas made the judgment. "Yes, it did feel like a vindication to us, but I'm not sure how many people were aware of the full significance of Robert Storr making that choice - he is the artistic director for the Venice Biennale in 2007 for one, as well as being one of the most respected curators and art historians in the world at the moment."
Burke, of course, is aware - it's his job to know. So how does one get to be arguably New Zealand's most important art curator? Like the careers of a number of other prominent figures in our arts scene, Burke's career was not mapped out - instead he forged a profile through hard work, beginning as an artist (he studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts from 1979-82). Along with some of his peers, he became interested in curating in the 1980s, when questions about the relationships between image, text and the context of the art museum became hotly contested.
"Part of my background was that I had been an artist, but I had also done an English literature degree and I was interested in text, language and writing, so it evolved naturally. I didn't choose to become a curator, but when I got the opportunity, in part because my own art practice was looking internationally, I was looking at what the new curating was doing, along with Tina Barton and Robert Leonard. I had a very strong belief that international dialogue and exchange are absolutely essential to the development of visual arts in this country. We really introduced a new way of curating to New Zealand with shows like After McCahon, Drawing Analogies, Now See Hear! and Robert Leonard's Nobodies exhibition.
"When I became a curator, I basically spent one year at the Sarjeant Gallery and just started curating. I didn't have any credentials. Within a year I was given a senior curatorial job at the City Gallery in Wellington. There are oodles of examples of that in this country. There's no training programme to become a curator. As places like the Govett-Brewster and Artspace develop, it gets harder to walk into them when you just have your degree or whatever and get a job as a curator. On the other hand, we have created the job of assistant curator at the Govett-Brewster and there is something similar at Artspace."
The rise of the curator as an influential player in the New Zealand art community in the 80s followed a trend that was already taking place overseas, as the exhibition increasingly became the site where new arts and art history graduates found that they could mine the issues that were being asked in contemporary art and theory. It also reflected a growing connection that this generation were feeling with an offshore intelligentsia; this group did not seem so bound by the stifling nationalist debate that had marked so much of the discourse in New Zealand art for so long.
During this fertile period, young curators felt that they could explore subjects like gender politics, identity issues, appropriation, semiotics and the art "canon". It became clear that the order that had shaped New Zealand art history was riddled with academic holes and that the frames of reference had followed a particular, flawed party line.
"Another important aspect of what I saw, which was a bit odd, is that the visual arts had a history of isolationism which it had almost encouraged. Looking back at people like Len
Lye and Frances Hodgkins, who had gone offshore and made their careers - I wouldn't say they were ostracised, but they were seen as having left the tribe.
"I thought there was an irony there, that we were for whatever reason producing a very experimental and vanguard scene in New Zealand, but it wasn't that scene which was being well-supported or acknowledged. People had definitely got out there and made a name for themselves in the world, but our own art history traced what had been achieved by artists in this country. It wasn't good at picking up on people like Len Lye and writing them into our history. We didn't reclaim Lye until very late in the piece."
It's not surprising that Lye should be on Burke's mind as he talks about the rewriting of New Zealand art history and the place of certain individuals within it. The Govett-Brewster, which Burke joined as director in 1998 after three years in arts development at Creative NZ, is home to the Len Lye Foundation and collection.
Lye, who died in 1980, is now internationally recognised for his pioneering experimental films and kinetic sculptures - sculptures that are still being developed today. It has become part of Taranaki folklore that an eccentric sculptor was lured from the other side of the world (Lye spent most of his life in London and New York) to develop his kinetic work with New Plymouth engineer John Matthews. But behind the scenes there were other important figures, including the first director of the Govett-Brewster, John Maynard, who was instrumental in securing a permanent site for Lye's working drawings, notes, experimental material and art works.
Burke is well versed in this history. "When the opportunity to go to the Govett-Brewster came up, I saw that there was an institution that, although it had had its highs and lows, had maintained a commitment to contemporary art from its founding policy, Monica Brewster's trust deed and the work of John Maynard. The Govett-Brewster was the first gallery, for example, to buy a Hotere, to do the first major touring Colin McCahon show Necessary Protection and the first gallery to stage and reclaim Len Lye, so it was a gallery that could build bridges with the rest of the world."
Building international bridges has become the mantra - not only for Burke but also for the Govett-Brewster. Burke is quick to point out that this has not come at the expense of understanding or being responsive to the local community: audience numbers continue to grow and the all-important support of the New Plymouth District Council is stronger than ever. The sense of goodwill between Burke and the council was shown last year when his contract with the gallery was extended indefinitely.
This situation has not simply come from the production of a world-class exhibition programme - under Burke's directorship, the Govett-Brewster has been the only New Zealand venue for such shows as Fluxus: A Long Tale with Many Knots, Mediarena and the recent On Kawara show - and the development of the Govett-Brewster brand, it has also grown from the strategic vision of this man: Burke is a political animal who spends long hours threading together the links that will feed back into both the gallery and his career. It is this political nous that makes him one of the most respected and feared individuals in the New Zealand art scene, and as the reputation of the Govett-Brewster has continued to grow over recent years, it has become synonymous with Burke himself.
"There is always a challenge of distance and size," he says, "but it is interesting now that the Govett-Brewster does have an international profile. If you mention the Govett-Brewster among serious artists in Paris or Los Angeles, a lot will know of its reputation, even though they might not know exactly where it is. We might not have the resources or location of the New Museum in New York or the Museum of Modern Art, but we can have the same attitude. I have thought about this because in terms of my career in this country there seems to be this set of expectations about what a gallery director will do - my three predecessors went from the Govett-Brewster to Dunedin. There is a little bit of prejudice to do with bigger is better - that if you are the biggest gallery in the biggest city, then that is the best thing you could be doing. But outside New Zealand it doesn't make any difference. If you are doing something that is important, then it doesn't matter if you come from Timbuktu or New York City, people will get to hear about it."
Burke is a genuine believer in the mission that he has been assigned - putting contemporary art front stage in New Zealand while also providing an international platform for our artists. Having been an instrumental figure in the initiation of significant overseas exhibitions such as Toi Toi Toi and Cultural Safety - both of which took contemporary New Zealand art to Germany - he has also helped to establish residencies for New Zealand artists in Aachen, Berlin, New York and Sydney. There might be a missionary-style zeal about the tones that are coming across the table, but it is hard not to be converted by Burke, who is clearly at the top of his game. Even when asked what the future holds, there is no sense of uncertainty in Burke's reply.
"I have thought about that recently because I have the Len Lye centre development, which is a major project being driven by the Govett-Brewster in association with the Len Lye Foundation. So, do I stay and see out that project or do I look for another opportunity? Well, as far as I'm concerned, the seeing out of the Len Lye project is another move in my career. I certainly wouldn't want to leave the Govett-Brewster and not go to something which is interesting and challenging for me and there are few opportunities nationally. I would be interested in international opportunities, but they have to be ones that are significant."