• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Auckland Art Gallery director Rhana Devenport - interview

Rhana Devenport may be an Australian but she is a strong advocate for New Zealand art.

Rhana Devenport, pictured in Auckland Art Gallery, is curating New Zealand’s 2017 Venice Biennale presentation. Photo/Victor Carter
Rhana Devenport, pictured in Auckland Art Gallery, is curating New Zealand’s 2017 Venice Biennale presentation. Photo/Victor Carter


Rhana Devenport’s love of art would have led to a career as an architect but for the insight and advice of her father. Devenport lives and breathes art and has carved out a niche at the top level of arts administration and leadership in New Zealand. Born in Brisbane, one of four children, the 55-year-old spent seven years as director of New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery where her tenure culminated in the planning of the Len Lye Centre. Since 2013 she’s been director of the Auckland Art Gallery.

When did you realise art would become your life?

My obsession with art started when I was young. I used to go plein air painting with my father, who was an architect and painter, drawing horses and mountains in southeast Queensland. I sold my first painting at 11 – it was of jacarandas and an elegant colonial building. I remember at about the same time presenting a detailed analysis of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling as a morning talk. I am sure my classmates’ eyes were glazing over, but I thought it fascinating.

Did architecture appeal as a profession?

Architecture is something I am very passionate about, with my father an architect and also one of my brothers. I would have been one too if my father hadn’t talked me out of it. He thought there was too much structural mechanics for me in architecture. I applied three times to get into it and each time withdrew my ­application. I went to art school instead and carried on with the art degree and education.

Much of the best architecture in New Zealand is hidden from view – extraordinary houses in spectacular locations populate our nether regions. It is thrilling to be associated with the two most beautiful and ingenious public buildings in the country, having helped forge one in the Len Lye Centre and being at the helm of the other in the ­Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. I also regularly work with architects and designers within the museum context. I have subsumed my archi­tectural interest in a healthy way. I’m in the right field – it was what I was born for.

Devenport at the opening of Gottfried Lindauer: Die Maori Portraits (The Maori Portraits) at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie in 2014. Photo/David von Becker
Devenport at the opening of Gottfried Lindauer: Die Maori Portraits (The Maori Portraits) at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie in 2014. Photo/David von Becker


You will be curating New Zealand’s presentation at the 2017 Venice Biennale, where Lisa Reihana’s panoramic video in Pursuit of Venus [infected] will feature. What are you reading in preparation for it?

Over Easter I read a wonderful book by Andrea Wulf called Chasing Venus. It is part of my wider reading in relation to the Venice project. What I am always interested in is different inflections on history and it was absolutely fascinating. Wulf is a ­British design historian and garden writer. The book gives a sense of the whole gamut, the 96 British people who were ­despatched to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. There were hundreds watching it across the world, truly a global enterprise of scientific collegial activity, and that was something I hadn’t quite got. I knew it was a competition between the French and the British but hadn’t understood how widespread it was and how even Catherine the Great became involved.

It is a riveting story about how it then led to a great expansion of the analysis of the natural world through observations and cartography. That of course then led to a very precise – within a hair’s breadth – understanding of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. From that, the scale of the universe was calculated, as well as the markings of time – and what that meant in terms of the expansion of knowledge of lens- and clock-making.

Do you normally immerse yourself so totally?

The writing for the Biennale publication is not due until November and until then I have decided to read as much as I can, in two phases. One is about the whole history of the observation of the transit of Venus and Cook’s voyages, and what that meant for New Zealand and analysis of scientific endeavour.

The other side is looking at art practice and the para­meters of Lisa’s work and its importance internationally as a major work of the multimedia practice.

I am also reading The Luminaries [by Eleanor Catton] and loving it. I have just finished another book that is quite ­different, more technologically focused, by Jaron Lanier, called Who Owns the Future? He was part of the group that devised virtual reality, so he is a ­fasci­nating scientist, musician and futurologist who is really speculating on global ownership, technology and particularly the analysis of information.

Devenport in her grandmother Eileen’s arms, with her parents Ed and Jean, brother Peter, and sister Maxeen. Photo/Devenport family collection
Devenport in her grandmother Eileen’s arms, with her parents Ed and Jean, brother Peter, and sister Maxeen. Photo/Devenport family collection


What do you read unrelated to your work?

I love Latin American writers and have just read a beautiful little love story of people in later life by Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover, which I adored. I also read anything by Haruki Murakami. My husband, Tim, is a mad sci-fi reader who introduced me to Lanier, so every fifth book or so is a William Gibson or Rudy Rucker. I find them fascinating in terms of imagining the future. Future gazing is part of my role.

You and your predecessor at Auckland Art Gallery, Chris Saines, are both Australian. Given the friendly but sometimes testy relationship, has it ever been an issue?

I don’t get teased about it any more, but when I first came, my husband and I were teased relentlessly, particularly from a sport perspective. Given that neither of us has a sport gene, it was pretty baffling. I am a strong advocate for New Zealand art, and in particular the Len Lye project, which required a lot of international advocacy. I tend not to be too interested in national boundaries.

We still have a house in Sydney and when we’re there we’re able to discuss in-depth New Zealand cultural practice, particularly the differences in history, the differences in our relationship with our indigenous population, as well as the cultural differences. I tend to call myself Australasian. I know it’s an old-fashioned word, but I know both places quite well.

I have been travelling to China since 1995, and I lived in Japan and did an internship there in 2001. I have also worked in American museums. It is all about the art, the possibilities, the conversations and being able to make a difference in the world.

While I tend to not enter into the national perspective, I feel very at home here. It is a terrific place to be, very interesting to observe international visitors and see their delight in being in New Zealand as well. I can be very proud and feel like I have contributed to that in my own small way.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.