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New director Kirsten Paisley sketches out her plans for the Auckland Art Gallery

Elevating the voice of the artist in civic life: Kirsten Paisley. Photo/Rohan Thomson/Supplied

Freshly installed in her role, Kirsten Paisley is already working on attracting funding and increasing audiences at the place she considers a national institution.

It was a big, wild North Island beach beginning with the letter B. Australian-born Kirsten Paisley, the new director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, cannot remember the name, but she does remember the small shell her then boyfriend found on the sand to propose to her 15 years ago during a two-week camping holiday around the country.

Did she say yes?

“I did! So, I’ve always been interested in New Zealand from that perspective.”

Now 42, Paisley, previous deputy director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, has hit the ground running. Three days into her new role, she was in front of a microphone to launch the Auckland Art Gallery’s Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys exhibition marking 150 years since the birth of “one of our most beloved artists”.

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Relaxed and free of art-speak, Paisley pointed out the gallery’s longtime role in preserving Hodgkins’ legacy, ever since director Eric Westbrook set about acquiring her work in the 1950s.

“Your cousins across the water think exceptionally highly of this beautiful institution,” she told the crowd of gallery supporters and sponsors, “so much so that when it was first announced I was to be the new director, everyone seemed to identify as being Kiwi.”

That announcement took some time. The top job at the Auckland Art Gallery was left vacant when Rhana Devenport returned to Australia to become the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia last year. Her successor was to be New Zealander Gregory Burke, the then chief executive of the Remai Modern gallery in Saskatoon, Canada, which he had guided through a costly renovation.

But, in early March, Canadian public broadcaster CBC reported that Burke was facing an allegation of workplace harassment submitted to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. He said the allegation dated back to 2013 and was filed in 2016 and he was waiting for a chance to address the “unproven allegation against me and clear any speculation of wrongdoing”.

A month later, Regional Facilities Auckland announced Paisley, who had been on the shortlist, as the new director.

Paisley’s gallery experience is substantial and arts administration would seem to run in the family – her father, Liberal politician Norman Lacy, was arts minister in the Parliament of Victoria from 1979-1982.

She left the family home at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges to study art at the Victorian College of Arts in Melbourne at age 17. She helped set up an artist-run gallery in Melbourne, but studio life was not for her. “I was the person among my peers and artist friends to organise exhibitions and events. I really like working in that space where art connected with audiences – it was a natural step for me.”

After completing a master’s degree from the first curatorial programme in Australia, she took on an eight-year tenure as director of the Shepparton Art Museum in regional Victoria. Under her watch, visitor numbers tripled and a successful rebrand won Best Small Museum at the Victorian Museum Awards.

During her three-year tenure at the NGA, she secured the hugely popular Cartier: The Exhibition, brokered a six-year A$4 million indigenous-arts partnership, created a dedicated children’s gallery and implemented a contemporary-art commissioning programme, which recently resulted in the exhibition Terminus, a major virtual-reality collaboration between New Zealand artists Jess Johnson and Simon Ward.

The NGA is a well-endowed institution: it houses a collection of more than 150,000 artworks, valued at nearly A$6 billion, and has an annual budget of A$54 million. Auckland Art Gallery has a collection of just over 17,000 artworks. When Devenport took on the directorship in 2013, the gallery had an annual operating budget of $9.2 million. By the end of the last financial year, this had been shaved back to $6.9 million, although in May last year the Auckland Council approved a $20 million increase over the next 10 years.

Paisley is quick to point out the gallery’s successes. Already, she says, the Auckland Art Gallery plays an important role in representing the historic and contemporary art of New Zealand and the broader Asia-Pacific region as well as showcasing wider arts movements and moments throughout history.

“That is an essential role for a national institution,” she says. National institution? In touring exhibitions throughout New Zealand and abroad, lending artworks across the Tasman and serving as a “place of pilgrimage” for New Zealanders from the rest of the country, the Auckland Art Gallery, she says, has been performing a national role for some time. “That is how I understand it.”

But she has a lot of listening and learning to do, she hastens to add. She wants to get to understand the region and its people by spending time with gallery staff, audiences and local artists. “Elevating the voice of the artist in civic life is part of why I do what I do.”

She is already rolling up her sleeves. Her to-do list includes increasing the gallery’s commercial partnerships and building on an “incredibly strong philanthropic history”. She is looking forward to presenting New Zealand art abroad, showcasing New Zealand artists, identifying and filling gaps in audience participation and creating new arts leadership or curatorial opportunities at entry level.

“The industry has become significantly professionalised since I first studied, with a highly educated group of arts workers across New Zealand and Australia. And the expectations of audiences are higher – everyone is curating images online and how we interpret objects is very different, so institutions are becoming less didactic, not telling people how to understand art, but giving them the tools to interpret it themselves. I see the museum as an extension of public space, similar to an Italian piazza – a place where people come together and share their knowledge; a place of conversation, participation and contemplation; a place where critical dialogue takes place.”

In the meantime, she is looking forward to her family of husband James and their two primary school-aged children “becoming Aucklanders”. Hopefully, they’ll be returning to that beach beginning with B to celebrate a 15th wedding anniversary.

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.