Wednesday 9 December 2015

Some things change

About once a month I have a mental (or online) rant over the museums-are-changing-for-the-worse meme (dumbing down, too much technology, not enough technology whatevs).

Sometimes its valuable to be reminded of how long-seated some of the 'democratising' efforts at our museums and galleries are. Last week this Art New Zealand article about the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery in 1977 was floating around The Dowse.

Apart from the fact that the build cost less than half a million and that the gallery had only three full-time staff (director Luit Bieringa, Exhibitions Officer Margaret Taylor and secretary Esme Robinson - the writer does note that the MAG had a similar amount of floor space to Auckland Art Gallery, then operating with the princely total of over 20 staff) it's interesting how much the opening displays mirror how the sector still launches today.

Perhaps one difference is the incorporation of craft, much more a feature of the 1950s-1970s era than the 1980s-2000s:
Entering the first gallery space there was a display of weaving and large photo panels, featuring potters at work. In the floor area a loom and two potter wheels plus tables of clay stood to be used in demonstrations.
However, the next section of the install is exactly the kind of experience that would be tweeted heavily for its innovation today:
The gallery opposite was enclosed in a darkened space set up for a TOUCH exhibition. Participants were blindfolded on entry and felt their way along a predetermined path of specially laid carpet. They slowly handled and touched a diverse range of functional, decorative and art objects.
The largest space was dedicated to "contemporary New Zealand painters who had different approaches to their art" (Toss Woollaston, Ray Thorburn, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht, Brent Wong, Pat Hanly and Philip Trusttum - not quite the diversity you'd expect today, but interesting for the figures who are left out: McCahon and Walters in particular). A further downstairs space "revealed a bizarre array of hands: skeleton and X-ray hands, wax hands, photographs and other visual material related to hand imagery" - the wunderkammer aesthetic never dies.

It's upstairs where things get gritty though. Climb past the awesome Ian Scott from their collection to discover the mezzanine gallery, where:
... the more vanguard art was shown: a Bruce Barber video tape Hand Game for Artists, Politicians and Solipsists, plus photo pieces, mail art and other contemporary works. In the lecture/film room, Brian McNeill's specially commissioned synchronised tape and slide presentation was shown to curious and aghast audiences. No doubt the title Hand Erotic Moves Divine lured many people to see a technically superb work. Films related to hands also screened, making the entire Show of Hands an exhausting journey through many different approaches and attitudes to art.
This article was written two years before I was born, and yet I recognise everything in it. Right to the last two paragraphs:
At the official opening ceremony on Sunday, 3 July, where politicians stood up and took credit for everything they did not do, Brian Ellwood, the Mayor of Palmerston North, stated a very important principle - this gallery was able to be designed and operated so successfully because of his principle of non-interference. As a local body politician he let the art professionals get on with their job. Such a statement drew much applause from the audience, especially from those in the art world who were suffering, or have suffered, such harassing political interference. David Taylor justly received a rousing ovation as the architect who made the building happen, though he was shyly hiding in the crowd. 
The product of Brian Ellwood's 'non-interference' policy in Palmerston North is the best designed gallery space in New Zealand; and an exhibitions and cultural programme that far outstrips the gallery's meagre budget in terms of imagination and scope.

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