Be bold, buy old and international

Artbeat column no 465 by Peter Entwisle

Published in the Otago Daily Times, 11.1 2010

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s collection exhibition Beloved offers food for thought – about the future as well as the past.

It’s a review of the gallery’s holdings staged to mark the institution’s 125th anniversary last year. This is New Zealand’s oldest public art gallery. The collections are one of the city’s and New Zealand’s crowning glories.  Their remarkable story is well worth telling, or re-telling.

The exhibition has an admirable catalogue with an introduction by Robyn Notman, the Public Programmes Manager. It duly acknowledges the 1990 Treasures exhibition which covered the same ground to that date and was curated by your columnist who also wrote the introduction to its catalogue. What Ms Notman modestly doesn’t mention is that she compiled that earlier catalogue’s list – the specific descriptions of each work.

It was no mean feat. There were 358 items. (The present exhibition has just over 200.) It was about six weeks between start and publication which seemed rather breathless, as it still does.

The Treasures exhibition and catalogue broke new ground in documenting the growth of a New Zealand public art collection.  Other institutions have followed since, though few with anything so comprehensive. The Beloved catalogue adds to the Dunedin holdings’ documentation, extending their lead in study and publication.

Ms Notman’s survey of old ground has new information – William Mathew Hodgkins’s view of Sunny Hours that it had a value for art students’ education and a photograph, clearly antecedent to the 1893 Nerli portrait of Hodgkins. It also throws new light on the benefits of publishing arresting stories of collection development.

We hear about Edi Allshouse’s reaction to reading of the bold 1893 acquisition of Van der Velden’s Otira Gorge in Air New Zealand’s Pacific Way. Ms Allshouse, a descendant of the American artist John James Audubon, was moved to make a significant donation to the gallery of her ancestor’s works in 2007.

I was involved with the gallery’s acquisitions from 1980 to the late 1990s. Reading the account I’m aware more lies behind the surface. In producing an essay-length review one can’t go into every turn or all the characters.  But there is scope for a longer study to bring that out which would cast much light on collection development.

If Ms Notman’s account of things from 1990 to 2009 is a little circumspect that is partly from the need to be tactful in dealing with recent controversy. Even so the absence of any reference at all to the Macchiaioli affair is an omission. It was a matter of extensive international publicity and one of the most striking acquisitions of recent decades. It also highlights changing conditions.

Two themes clearly emerge: the gallery’s enduring struggle to fund acquisitions, always difficult but sometimes surprisingly successful; and the unceasing need to get the balance right between old and new, local and other. (The latter used to be called “foreign” but now is termed “international”.)

With limited funds adventurous buying can sometimes be a good strategy. Apart from the illuminating stories of the 1893 Otira acquisition and the 1913 purchase of Frances Hodgkins’s Summer, both described in the catalogue, there are others which serve as an antidote to the often repeated view that, for example, the gallery can’t afford to buy “big name” old foreign paintings. The 1931 purchase of the Turner is one and, more modestly, the 1993 purchase of the Rottenhammer.

And efforts to win funds from private donors though challenging can be successful. The introduction notesthe centennial fund (which I proposed to some scepticism) enabled the gallery to spend $100,000 a year by the late 1980s. It is noteworthy too that the dogged pursuit by the gallery society from that time (notably first by Les Williams) of a regular city council acquisitions subvention did at last pay off in 2003 during Priscilla Pitts’s directorship. The introduction notes Ms Pitts’s advocacy but not the effort preceding it.

Concerning balance, the gallery started by collecting mostly New Zealand contemporaries. That wasn’t its aim but all it achieved. From 1919 it actively acquired foreigners too, mostly old. From the late 1950s it was seen as unduly neglecting the local, especially the more challenging contemporaries. By the 1990s it had almost wholly refocused its active programme in that direction. It needs another change of tack now.

Its recent acquisitions lack nothing in quality or significance. But if the gallery is to avoid the criticism of later generations that it neglected a part of its brief it needs to seriously re-engage with the non-New Zealand and the past – and find the means to do it. Auckland’s promised gift of 15 works including ones by Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse will see it challenge Dunedin as the principal holder of overseas art. We should look to our laurels.

Beloved is a delightful celebration and also a timely lesson.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times