Balancing present desires with claims of art and history

Artbeat column no 447 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 4 May 2009

Some good things have been happening at the public art gallery but first some corrections and explanations.

Last week I referred to the South Dunedin Baptist church when I meant the Methodist one. That’s the 1894 building in Hillside Road the owners are planning to demolish. I also said a demolition permit had been issued which produced an email from Councillor Richard Walls. He said he wasn’t aware of any and that the committee he’d been sitting on had been considering permission for the new development not demolition permits.

Fair enough. I looked further. The city’s staff tell me no building consent to demolish the church has even been applied for. So can one just be issued now or can the city impose conditions? I also discovered it is the Building Control Unit which issues them, not the planning department.
However the process also requires a Project Information Memorandum (PIM) which does have to come from planning. It is there any conditions on the exercise or issuance of a consent to demolish are made, for example with regard to legislation concerning archaeology or the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Feeling confused? Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Neil McLeod of the Building Control Unit very kindly explained all this to me and said it had taken the city’s officials a while to work it out themselves. Also that the relevant regulations and legislation are “changing as we speak”. No wonder there’s some confusion among ordinary souls as to who exactly does what.
Where does this leave the South Dunedin Methodist Church? Unfortunately still in limbo. There’s no demolition permit for it but its formal protections are scant. Its best chance for the future still lies with its owners reconsidering the matter, re-evaluating where to strike the balance between present desires and the claims of art and history.

That was the underlying theme at least for me at the opening last Tuesday of Femme du Monde. It’s the exhibition at the public art gallery of works by Frances Hodgkins in public ownership in Dunedin. It’s an interesting show with of course some wonderful paintings and  I strongly recommend it. It is curated by Alexa Johnston and there’s a very attractive catalogueThere were a number of speeches at the opening, and some tributes paid, but a couple of things came to my mind which weren’t mentioned. The show is not in the space which is now dedicated to a continuing display of Miss Hodgkins’ work. Reference was made to the fact that that space was inaugurated during the former Director Priscilla Pitts’ time, in 2002, but not to what lay behind it.

Marshall Seifert was there, the well-known former art dealer of this city. It was he who long and publicly advocated the inauguration of the dedicated space. People who administer art galleries tend to be unhappy about making such commitments. They reduce flexibility, a reason to avoid them. But they are the public’s guarantee that certain things will reliably be there.

In my time at the gallery I came to see that some such commitments are necessary. To Ms Pitts’ credit she too came to see this in the case of Frances Hodgkins and reversed herself to make the commitment. The present exhibition, marking Miss Hodgkins’s 140th birthday, is a happy consequence. I salute Mr Seifert - and Ms Pitts - and point to the merits of reconsidering positions.

There are other promising developments at the gallery too under the new Director Elizabeth Caldwell. She has said:

“I would very much like to see the gallery’s entire collection online.

While both time and funding is required, I would like the gallery to look aredeveloping its website and putting the collection online will be part of thainitiative. “

A start was made on this while I was at the gallery and has been carried a little further since. But the present limited selection now looks rather modest when compared with the gallery’s institutional peers.

There’s quite a lot to a project like this, more than meets the uninitiated eye. It calls for a lot of curatorial input, among other things. But it’s a way of bringing the collections to a much larger, world-wide audience. It isn’t a substitute for conventionally published catalogues but it is an invaluable additional tool.

The gallery’s collections look good in an international context but too much of them remain known to only a few. The effect of getting all of them online could be dramatic. Even progress towards that goal will bring greater interest, more information and also more visitors to the gallery. It’s a highly welcome development.

And there’s a new regime for this column. It’s been weekly since it started but space in a paper is precious. It will now be once a fortnight.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times