Addressing the Fear of Art Galleries

In the last couple of months I have been lucky enough to venture out of little old Invercargill and find a breath of fresh air in both Dunedin and Auckland. While wandering these cities I decided to spend some time feeling warm, safe and inquisitive in Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) and Auckland Art Gallery (AAG). I must admit that these feelings are fairly new. Now that I work in an art gallery I have suddenly become much more comfortable with them and I suspect I am one of a minority. Despite best efforts and the wonders of modern art galleries becoming much more interactive and hands on for visitors, a lot of people still seem scared of them. I do not know if this a result of assumptions about what will be inside or feeling that it’s above them, elite and confusing, but I feel it is something that needs to change.

In Auckland, I was exploring the city alone on a workday. It was quite cold and I didn’t know the city well so I followed trusty google maps to somewhere where I knew it was ok to feel unsure. When I entered the lady behind the desk was incredibly kind to me and explained nicely that I had to leave my things with her in cloak check. After carting a couple of bags around all day, exploring the space with nothing in my hands but my phone for photos and a map for layout actually enhanced my experience. I felt incredibly in the moment as I wandered around the spaces gravitating towards whatever grabbed my attention.

Many pieces in the collection based shows were by artists whose work we have in our own collection. I even saw two Gretchen Albrecht works very similar to ours. Seeing them greatly helped me understand our Albrecht and how it fits in with its art peers. As someone who didn’t actually study much literal Art History at university apart from the odd paper, I am still learning a lot about the art world. I only know the famous names or ones from the collections I have handled, so it felt incredibly good to recognise some names and artists from what I could see before me without reading labels. I felt like I had gone up a level in art literacy!

Towards the end of my visit I had, as expected, wound my way up the floors to the top gallery space. Displayed here were the finalists in The Walters Prize 2018. I had no idea what the awards purpose and focus was but but from what I could hear I was immediately intrigued. Rounding the corner I could see nothing but naked humans and other psychedelic unusual things swirling in kaleidoscope type patterns on multiple screens which you were invited to stand on a platform in the middle of. After submersing myself in these oddities for long enough I followed the noise I could hear into a full room installation full of green and black hanging tinsel, collages, and loud, unavoidable rap music. It was brilliant. The young children I had been following into this space immediately ran into the middle of the hanging tinsel and smiled something wonderful. This space invited them to make noise and by feeling comfortable being noisy kids they really interacted with the installation. Even I couldn’t help but smile. It seems that noise in the gallery space helped us all relax and engage.

When it came to DPAG I happily dragged my friend along with me. Again it was raining and cold outside and we had time to kill in the CBD before plans at 4pm so going inside was no hardship. This was also eased by the wonderful array of gift shop items lining the entrance, including a very special looking inflatable swan. Our art gallery tour comprised of wandering around pointing out works we liked, names we recognised, the ages of works, as well as the creepiest, ugliest, weirdest things we could find. When it came to some very interesting medieval works we were not afraid to point out he creepy man in the background or the girl with no shoulders and consequently out laughing. The attendants in the rooms seemed to quite enjoy our commentary. One lady even took this as a chance to tell us about the films artist and how when the video of him in super massive pants climbing out windows was first exhibited they actually had all the pants he had made and worn during the month he filmed the content. He never washed them, and rarely took them off, so as you can image she also had numerous smells to describe to us! It was a memorable engagement with modern art and I’m quite pleased the pants are gone now! The moral of the story here is though, that if we had been afraid to speak up and chatter away in the art gallery our experience would have been less. Instead by being comfortable and saying our thoughts we brought smiles to the faces of the workers and heard a rather unforgettable story which brought that art to life for us on a whole new level.

Speaking of new levels, IPAG is moving into a new building in 2019 which will be a collaborative space with the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. It is glorious to feel these institutions working together and I am hoping that, with the joining, people will feel less afraid to enter our doors and explore what’s within. Arts and heritage spaces, whatever their forms, are for the people, the community. We want you to feel welcome and comfortable to the level that you are not afraid to speak up about your experience as you never know how that might just improve it for the better.  

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

"I'm a feminist because..."

Last Friday, Invercargill’s Deputy Mayor Becs Amundsen and I were walking to the Kiln to pick up some platters for that evening’s event, a book launch for local poet Cilla McQueen. Interested in her KIND Woman concept, and always on the hunt for cool ideas that the IPAG team can get amongst, we began discussing how we could collaborate on an exhibition for Suffrage 125.

In this five minute period, the concept for “I’m a feminist because…” was born, and five days later it was a reality. At its core, this exhibition is a discussion about equality and also a place where men and women can write, alongside the words of others, why they are a feminist. As I write this, there are only about twenty reasons on the board, but the power and strength behind them literally stops you in your tracks.

Since the inception of this idea, this very question has been running over in my head and I have realized that although I have always been a proponent of equality, I didn’t truly align myself as a feminist until after I had had my daughter.

For me, the question of returning to work after six months of maternity leave had always been a given. I love my job, I enjoy the mental stimulation and I studied for years to be qualified. My career has always been important to me, and whilst I knew becoming a mother would change my priorities and make me look at the world differently, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t change these things that are fundamental to my being. I also had an extremely supportive employer who did all they could to make this transition easy. They valued my skills and knew that if I was supported and happy, they would get the best of me in return.

That being said, I was shocked by the resistance to this idea that came, both from people who knew me, and from total strangers. From many, I experienced pity, as if I was being forced back to work rather than willingly returning. I also to this day vividly remember a visitor to the gallery, in the first few weeks, telling me my child was too young to not have her mother around and that I had returned to work too early.  Although now I would have a different response to these reactions, I struggled a lot with guilt in those early months.

I’m not going to say that returning to work was easy, as leaving your child, a literal piece of you, is hard. However, my partner and I are equal parents who both work, and make decisions for our child together. Yet, I’m fairly certain no one said the same things to him.

So for me, I am a feminist because I believe in the right to equality and also in the right to choose. Whether you want to have ten children or none, be in paid employment or be a stay at home mum, we live in a world where women can do what is right for THEIR families and THEIR lives and have the best of the many worlds that they can pick for themselves. I just hope that when my daughter grows up she is able to do so with less judgement than what women today currently face.

So those are my reasons, but we would love to hear yours. Please pop into 5 Don Street before the 29th September and leave your mark on our “I'm a feminist because…” wall.  

Our voices are stronger when we speak together.

Sarah Brown

Discovering Hidden Gold

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the smallest thing can be the key to a wealth of information? How one small sentence, in one document, can give you more than hours and hours of dedicated research?  This happened to me recently when I was going through one of the many folders of collection documentation.

While quickly scanning the piles and assessing what sized mountain lay before me, I stumbled across a three page document titled “Sir Joseph Ward a portrait, Van der Velden” and decided to have a deeper look. Inside, one page was dedicated to the artist, one to the subject, and the last was dedicated to the work itself. This latter intrigued me most. It is rare to get any solid provenance or history with an artwork, let alone have it written down all in one source such as this. After reading the attached handwritten letter I learnt that this document was compiled by the Auction House who sold the work to try and help it sell. It turns out that our Van der Velden Portrait of Sir Joseph Ward has quite a colourful history.

For years it adorned the walls of the Saint Albans Masonic Lodge in Christchurch where no one really knew its true worth. When it sold at public auction in 1995 it fell into the hands of someone with a careful eye who recognised it was a painting of considerable merit and sought treatment. They took it to an art restorer who cleaned the work and revealed the Van der Velden signature, top right corner. The subject was then identified by two highly respected art historians, Neil Roberts and Peter Entwistle.

Following this the painting passed into the hands of art conservator John Harper. The document stated that John restored the work and documented the process fully. With one google search containing ‘John Harper’ and ‘Art Conservator’ I had not only found John but also learnt that he was still operating today up in Golden Bay. With high hopes I sent John an email stating that I recently found a document indicating that he restored a Van der Velden work now in our possession. Initially john could not find the records, but after he requested any names that may have been associated with the painting at the time, he located the work in his system. Gold had been struck. John was able to send me a full record of the condition the work came in with and the work he completed. He also had before and after images. I leant details such as what paint colours and types were used for patches and that the work had its original varnish removed and replaced. Now when I notice these details they make sense.

John himself seemed more than happy to assist me with my query and in fact had replied to me in less than 24 hours. Funnily enough he had been having a true “Van der Velden” week, as he was, in fact, about to tell another client that their work also was a Van der Velden after discovering the signature. This family had always been told that their ancestor picked up Van der Velden one night in the pouring rain on a road side. He gave the artist food and a warm bed only to have the artist say I am too poor to pay you for your kindness but I can paint your portrait. Seems this story was in fact, FACT!  

Quite simply, I was incredibly lucky to have noticed that one simple sentence in one rather unassuming photocopied document. This just shows how detailed and focused collections people need to be on a daily basis. The lesson here is, if works can be connected to conservators, restorers, or auction houses you will often be able to uncover invaluable information and hopefully some real hidden gems. It is the breakthroughs in history and provenance of works that really make someone like me smile. It is knowing that I connected the dots even when the second dot I was looking for was fading by the day. Now it’s in permanent marker. 

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

Rain Rain, Go Away and Maybe Don’t Come Another Day

As it pours with rain outside, I sit here at my computer trying to decide on a topic for this blog. Let me tell you, it is not easy! There has been so many things happening at the gallery over the last few months that it’s hard to keep up! From AGM planning to knitted skeletons, things are in steady upward motion here at IPAG. Rain however, has been on the radar a fair amount of late and not always in the best ways!

As you most likely will have heard, we were lucky enough to gain 11 Don Street as our second temporary pop up gallery. It has just finished hosting the awestriking show Anatomy Lessons 2005-2018 by Michele Beevors. The amount of people who walked past the floor to ceiling windows of this space only to stop, point, and let their jaws hit the floor, could only make one smile. With our many heaters going, this space became incredibly inviting to people of all ages to come in and hide from the rain, whilst engaging with some pretty awesome knitted creations. Mr Ed, the horse, developed an alter ego as a dinosaur, and hardly anyone could recognise what Flipper the dolphin looked like in skeletal form.  Groups of all ages and configurations were drawn to the gallery also, from knitting and anatomy groups through to SIT and Dunedin School of Art students and kindergartens. Since our move into the city centre, I do not think the gallery has ever received so much publicity! Visitor numbers sky rocketed, with around 60-80 people a day and Gemma had to ‘say cheese’ for the papers around 4 times over the two weeks. Even the More fm radio guys couldn’t help themselves. They walked past twice before deciding they had to knock and ask about what was being set up inside!

The only challenge presented by this space was the rain. The realities of working with collections is that you become super aware of climate and the risk of leaks, fires etc to these items. One day, when the rain was very heavy, the gutter on the roof backed up and overflowed so badly that a small stream of water was coming in under the front door of 11 Don Street. Gemma and I had to become expert water control officers, creating sand bags out of towels and ensuring the safety of the artworks until the ILT building team fixed the issue. No one can predict a leak but by checking our spaces every morning, especially during winter or patches of bad weather, we do our best to keep our collections and spaces safe.  We do the same with electronics, unplugging things overnight that will not be in use, to help prevent wire shortages and electrical fires.

With the bad weather seeming to set in and winter fast approaching, we as a team want to quickly get as much art out of Anderson House as possible. Over the past two months Chris, our gallery assistant, and I have wrapped all the art that can safely be transported by that method. Now the works which remain at the house unwrapped include oversized or heavy items, and our 3D collection. The best way to transport ceramics is often by nesting them in special HDPE crates. This heavy duty plastic is strong, durable and doesn’t break down and off gas over time like other types of plastic. To transport works in bad weather is never ideal, however, to have items safely packed in sealable lidded crates means we can transport our ceramics if the weather is not ideal, aka a typical southland winters day.

After a good few days of measuring ceramics we worked out the number of crates we would need to purchase to transport the 3D collection. It will cost around $3000 for all the crates alone! On top of this cost we will have to factor in foam, tools, Tyvek, and truck hire. Safely moving a collection is a massive undertaking and the cost of collection management and relocation is not something people realise. It is good to be able to teach people about this though, which is why this is one of the things the staff will be speaking about at the upcoming AGM in June.

Our AGM is fast approaching, and as a new staff member to IPAG, and a new entrant to the post grad workforce, it’s all very new for me.  Gemma and Sarah, along with board are doing a wonderful job putting together all the required documentation alongside running two exhibition venues. That leaves me to ensure that the collection store rooms and Ehive are up to scratch for the day. As our entire collection now has its basic information, such as title, artist, date, medium, valuations, on Ehive, we thought it would be good to be able to show this to our members and supporters at the AGM, as well as offer tours of our back of house spaces. Whilst we are proud of achieving so much, we must stress that there are still miles to go regarding the digitisation of our collection. We must gain copyright from artists or estates before any works can go live for general public viewing, as well as, continuing the scanning and attachment of any hard copy collection documentation we have to the appropriate records to ensure its safe keeping. As I like to tell myself…. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming … and it will happen.

If you want to hear more, please feel free to come along to the AGM, June the 10th, 7pm, 5 Don Street.

See you there!

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

Exciting opportunities ahead

Michael Fallow wrote a superb article (June 19) describing the difficult history of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery (SMAG). There are similarities with the history of the Invercargill Public Art Gallery (IPAG).

When the founders of our public art collection lobbied for a purpose-built gallery in the centre of the city they were given Anderson House as an attractive, but easy solution. The Southland Museum added an art gallery to their facility because many wanted a gallery closer to the city centre.

As with the SMAG, IPAG struggled to contain and care for a valuable and growing collection in a building that was no longer fit for purpose. Obtaining a sustainable level of funding was also an ongoing challenge. The gallery survived financially early on because John Husband (our original Director) largely worked for free and Assistant Director (and later Gallery Manager) Helen Nicoll had huge amounts of good will. We also owe a lot to Stephen Davies’ vision in ensuring a strong temporary presence in the city centre and good will has continued with our current staff (Sarah, Gemma and Loren) who do much that is unseen by the public.

Few are aware of the backroom work that occurs in museums and art galleries now. Engaging public programming and the care and cataloguing of valuable collections ($4.3 million in IPAG’s case) requires a high level of professional expertise, especially if we want our public treasures to be available for future generations. We can no longer rely on good will and temporary fixes. Our current staff are professionals with post graduate qualifications specifically related to their roles. We need to value their skills and retain their knowledge

The building closures have served a harsh but useful purpose, it has made our local community realise the value of institutions that many took for granted and also highlighted the ongoing operational challenges for staff.

The up-swelling of support for SMAG and IPAG have provided a strong mandate for future Council decisions. I think that we should recognise that the current long-term plan has a greater investment in art and heritage than has occurred for many decades and the Arts & Creativity Centre is an exciting proposal. What we now need to do is collaborate as a community, learn from the past and finally establish sustainable solutions that will serve us well into the future. Having an accessible transition plan is obviously a priority so that staff can be clear about their job security and the community can feel fully informed about what is planned.

It would be great to see the membership grow in both institutions and have skilled people step up to take on governance roles. While we often wait for an inspiring leader to appear, it is actually skilled teams with unified purpose, good process and community wide collaborations that will get things done in the end. We also have the opportunity to lead the country with innovative and cost-effective solutions. We don’t really have problems, we have some amazing opportunities.

By attending the Invercargill Public Art Gallery AGM on June 14 there is an opportunity to see what is really involved in running an art gallery (with a behind the scenes tour led by our talented staff) and hear about our future plans. If you have some useful skills you may even consider putting your hand up and joining our amazing board (contact Gallery Manager/Curator Sarah Brown for an application form) and be inspired by our Strategic Plan.  

Let’s “Embrace What Art Can Be” and get on with it!

David Kennedy
IPAG President