Wednesday 26 March 2008

So long

Mary Kisler has just written about Peter Tomory's death on the Auckland Art Gallery blog. Tomory died yesterday.

Peter Tomory was director of the Auckland City Art Gallery (as it was then) from 1956-1964. He followed on from Eric Westbrook, and was only the second trained gallery director to work in NZ, coming out from England after short stints in several regional galleries.

Tomory, along with a small and close-knit staff at the Gallery which included Colin McCahon, cleaner-turned-keeper, did some bloody amazing things over those years. They ran a relentlessly-paced exhibition programme, shipping in shows from overseas and touring shows throughout New Zealand. Tomory introduced the yearly survey of contemporary New Zealand art - the predecessor of City Gallery's Prospect series.

Tomory also drew up a expansive acquisition policy, largely focused on strenghtening the international collection - New Zealand art would follow a bit later. He researched the collection, often calling on colleagues around the world for attributions and further information. He faced down an outraged council twice, once over the Henry Moore show (admittedly, a bit of a set up) and once over the Barbara Hepworth acquisition, when he threatened to resign should the Council force the Gallery to withdraw from the deal.

And he wrote - boy, did he write - texts that became the backbone of Brown and Keith's Introduction to New Zealand 1839-1967, and which came under attack (often unfairly, in my opinion) by the "post-nationalist" critics in the 1980s/1990s.

But the thing that really inspired me about Tomory and his crew is that they truly believed that something was at stake. They really believed that art could make society better - that people deserved access to art, and art deserved an audience. And that that audience should be informed. And they worked like dogs to achieve this.

After leaving Auckland Tomory taught and curated in the States, before going to Melbourne to set up the art history department at La Trobe. In an address he gave there, he stated that maybe the most important thing an art history department can do is produce an informed and sympathetic audience for the visual arts. Earlier, in Auckland, he said that it wasn't the gallery's role to cosset working artists: it was the gallery's role to create an audience that would go out to the emerging dealer galleries and support artists there. And that wouldn't get in a strop when you tried to buy a piece of abstract sculpture.

Since then, nothing's changed, and everything's changed, and one of the things I think has changed the most is that that almost visionary passion - that utter committment to what a gallery is trying to do for and with its community - has leached away somewhat. I know it's easy to idealise a time you weren't there for, but I do hold a candle for the Auckland City Art Gallery, c. 1960.

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