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The art and soul of Te Papa

Te Papa: 20 years of surveys point to high levels of visitor satisfaction. Photo/Te Papa

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, after an expensive refit, it is showing off its dedicated art space.

Valentine’s Day, 1998. There are hay bales, bands, food stalls and prayers. The sun is shining; the wind skitters across Wellington Harbour. “This building behind us,” Prime Minister Jenny Shipley tells the crowd, “is a place where we can look at ourselves, at our past and at our present, at our natural heritage, at the unique mosaic of cultures that is New Zealand.”

And look at ourselves we did. Within its first three months, Te Papa Tongarewa, or “Our Place”, exceeded its annual target of 700,000 visitors. Two million people entered the cavernous foyer in the first year. With its interactive exhibits and multidisciplinary displays, Te Papa was noisy and irreverent, cheerfully kicking down the walls between art, ethnology, history and natural science to present a big, broad cross-disciplinary platform of social inclusiveness, storytelling and, at its heart, biculturalism.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The new museum won bouquets. “It is hard to think of another national museum,” enthused University of Leicester professor of museum studies Simon Knell, “that has so fundamentally rewritten the ethics of being a museum. Te Papa is known and admired everywhere.”

And brickbats. Not just the headline-grabbing protests over Tania Kovats’ smaller-than-a-pint-sized Virgin in a Condom, but also the building – too square, too mall-like – and the displays. Although steeped in determinedly ideological postmodernism, its museological approach was derided as anti-intellectual, a grand dumbing down – “jumbled and incoherent”, said newly elected Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Fuelling the fires of disapproval was the shortage of dedicated art space. The opening art exhibition, Parade, was a self-conscious illustration of 1950s-1970s New Zealand identity, juxtaposing Jeff Thomson’s corrugated-iron Holden Kingswood, Split Enz costumes, airline crockery from Air New Zealand forerunner Teal, Charles Goldie portraits, a Kelvinator slimline refrigerator and, in what one art writer described as an act of “artistic blasphemy”, Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels.

Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand, exhibition view, 2018. Photo/Michael O’Neill/Te Papa

“In contrast to the usual temple of culture,” writes museologist Conal McCarthy in his adulatory Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum 1998-2018, “Parade ‘bombarded’ people with art in a way that was diverse, colourful, eclectic and, quelle horreur, fun.”

Despite a $4.7-million refit in 2001, only 3% of the 14,000-strong art collection could be shown at any one time and there was no space for large works such as Ralph Hotere’s Black Phoenix and Michael Stevenson’s This Is the Trekka (currently on show at City Gallery Wellington’s This Is New Zealand exhibition). Research last year showed that still only about 45% of respondents knew Te Papa held the national collection.

As one gallery board member said after the 1998 opening, “All I need to know is where the door to the National Art Gallery is.”

Two decades after Parade, the entrance to Toi Art, Te Papa’s new dedicated art spaces straddling levels four and five, is unmissable. A two-year, $6 million Warren and Mahoney-designed interior refit, the first part of an institution-wide overhaul, has cleared out the jumbled heart of Our Place to add an extra 35% of floor space dedicated to art and art alone. From the fourth-floor cafe, a new inexplicably curved 8m wall signposts the designated gallery within a museum. Inside, two massive pivoting doors give an unmistakable sense of arrival. “We have done some really interesting work in terms of collection exhibitions over the past few years, but the huge challenge was the profile,” says senior art curator Sarah Farrar, who leads me on a tour of the facility. “People could arrive at this building and not know where the art was. There will be no missing Toi Art.”

On the fourth floor, visitors will now enter the new double-height Threshold Gallery, opening with Détour, a large installation by Michael Parekowhai, based on Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, a portable case containing miniature versions of his best-known works, and riffing on other works in the collection – those darned Northland Panels again. The airspace is cut through by a fifth-floor walkway, the walls are more rich cream than white, at the artist’s request the corners are slightly rounded, but in its spare loftiness, it comes perilously close to the white cube so derided by the ideologues of 20 years ago.

Janet Lilo, Top16, 2007-18 (detail). Photo/Maarten Holl/Te Papa

A foyer, suitable for openings, lectures and performances, incorporates the wide stairwell up to Level 5, home of the national collection. A large pou by Arnold Manaaki Wilson marks the entrance to the first of two large exhibitions. Spreading over five rooms, Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand encompasses different approaches to identity and cross-cultural exchange. Wilson’s Haumia, Rangitiina, Tiinia sparks off McCahon’s Koru 1, 2, 3; recent works by Auckland artist Julian Hooper set up comparisons with Len Lye’s jiving 1929 short film Tusalava.

Further on, a traditional salon display of historic portraits of Māori, Pacific and European subjects is dominated by William Beetham’s huge portrait of Isaac Featherston, first superintendent of Wellington Province – an austere figure upstaging with an authoritative air of privilege the two rangatira, Wi Tako and Te Puni, standing behind.

Elsewhere, Hotere’s A Union Jack? shares space with a large tapa-cloth work by John Pule and Ans Westra’s photographic records of Springbok Tour demonstrations. McCahon’s Scared faces off against Peter Robinson’s Boy Am I Scarred Eh.

More contemporary works from the collection address issues of appropriation, including Francis Upritchard’s “faux taonga” and Shane Cotton’s toi moko paintings, here footnoted by a collection of drawings by colonial soldier, artist and toi moko collector Horatio Gordon Robley.

The intimate spaces for these displays, leading off a central corridor, echo the light-filled passageway of the old National Art Gallery in Buckle St, but their content is clearly meant to provoke, to chip away at our assumptions, to raise questions inspired not by museological trends but by the art itself.

“It’s about letting art tell the story,” says Farrar, “rather than art being an illustration of other things.”

Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War has attracted 1.8 million visitors. Photo/Te Papa/Michael Hall

A second exhibition of works from the collection, Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa, presents a distinctively New Zealand-Pacific reading of abstract art, with work by Reuben Paterson, Helen Calder, Gordon Walters, Carl Sydow and Milan Mrkusich in conversation with a toi whakairo (carving) by Anaha Te Rahui and an enormous Fijian masi (tapa cloth). A former stairwell houses Indra’s Bow, by Indian-Samoan artist Tiffany Singh, made up of a multimedia rainbow of circular glass vials containing spices, powders and gemstones used in traditional healing. Further on, Share the Love, a newly commissioned work from Auckland Māori-Pasifika artist Janet Lilo, uses a giant wall of selfies to address our toxic fixation with the very public “likes” of social media platforms such as Facebook and the now-defunct Bebo.

Spilling out into a large less-intimate fourth-floor space that was previously used for storage, Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists celebrates the 26-year history of this collective working across fashion, performance, music and film. Further on, a second retrospective backgrounds the successful international career of New Zealand jeweller Lisa Walker. I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered showcases her audacious exploration of material – stone, shell, pearls, pounamu, Lego, kitchen utensils – and scale as she stretches, strains, then obliterates conventional expectations of jewellery.

Throughout Toi Art, the self-conscious examination of what a museum should be has dimmed. Thankfully, and most importantly, there is more space for the collection. There is also a clear resolve to show more female artists, to work with contemporary artists on new projects and to locate New Zealand in a Pacific context – works by Pacific artists make up a third of the current exhibitions.

Halfway through the tour, “biculturalism”, the word on everyone’s lips two decades ago, has not been mentioned.

“Biculturalism is still the foundational relationship for the museum, because of the Treaty,” says Farrar. “But [Toi Art] is cross-cultural – we are now looking at other relationships.”

The multidisciplinary nature of the museum is still present – downstairs, an 1861 painting by English artist William Strutt sits within a historical display about the New Zealand Wars – but that focus seems less important now.

“The opening ethos in 1998 was a strong emphasis on art being incorporated throughout the building, which meant its home was smaller,” says Te Papa’s head of art, Charlotte Davy. “That is what we have been trying to address. We’re saying art needs its own place to stand. It is an important collection, it is the national collection, and the importance of art to society is something we really care about.”

Charlotte Davy, Te Papa Head of Art.

There are no regrets – no stated regrets, anyway – about Te Papa’s initial approach. It was, says Davy, an important opportunity to rethink the place of art. But now the focus is less on breaking rules of curation and more on presenting art in an art context.

She says she won’t be putting a McCahon next to a fridge. “We are trying to get people into a space of critical thinking, not a space of national pride. And people are happy there is a dedicated place that they can go to in Te Papa and have a full experience of art and that it is given the prominence that they and we believe is important for this collection.”

Te Papa has been successful. Twenty years of surveys point to high levels of visitor satisfaction. Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War has attracted 1.8 million visitors since opening in April 2015. Overseas visitors, who make up half of the museum’s numbers, are expected to grow in line with overall tourist arrivals.

But art is a harder sell. A survey of 2000 New Zealanders shows a fifth of Te Papa’s visitors have no interest in visiting an art gallery. Nearly a third of that group say they “wouldn’t understand the art”; another 28% believe art galleries are boring.

“We are never going to change that,” says Te Papa head of audience insights Clint Elsom. “It is more about people who are open to the idea [of seeing art] and saying how can we encourage them? We forecast the number of people going through the new art gallery will be 25% greater than before.”

Toi Art will quieten calls for a new standalone national art gallery, at least for now. Previous proposals – for a $23 million refit of the neighbouring Odlin’s Building, a new $100 million stand-alone national art gallery and a Te Papa north in South Auckland – would all have been smaller than Toi Art’s 3980sq m dedicated space. And why, asks Davy, would you throw away a ready audience and start again?

“With a stand-alone building, you have to work so hard to attract an audience,” she says, “whereas we have 1.7 million people walking in the door every year.”

But Te Papa won’t be standing still.

“The idea we’ll be sitting here in 10 years’ time doing the same thing – I hope there will be people calling us out about that. We have to be at the cutting edge of thinking, and as artists present new ideas, we need to be there with them, presenting those ideas. But I think this will satisfy a lot of people.”

Toi Art opens March 17. Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand's National Museum 1998-2018, by Conal McCarthy (Te Papa Press, $45)

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.