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In good spirits

With City Gallery’s summer blockbuster exhibition in full swing, Nicki Manthel talks to Claire O’Loughlin about behind-the-scenes fundraising for the gallery.

Nicki Manthel in her studio

As an artist herself, City Gallery Wellington Development Manager Nicki Manthel straddles the worlds of art and philanthropy, and understands how each relies on the other. She manages the City Gallery Wellington Foundation, and the Friends of City Gallery, which support the work of the gallery and help bring big international exhibitions to Wellington. Their latest achievement is massive: the exhibition of Swedish artist and mystic, Hilma af Klint.

Af Klint was a ground-breaking abstract artist who worked from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Considered one of the first abstract painters, she exhibited rarely in her lifetime, and felt the world was not yet ready for her paintings. Upon her death in 1944, she left instructions that they not be shown to the public for at least 20 years. They were rolled up and stored, almost forgotten, in the attic of the family house for decades.

When it was finally revealed, her work sent ripples through the art world. Here was an artist – and a woman at that – working in an abstract style before Kandinsky and Mondrian, who had always been considered the ground-breakers of abstraction.

Deeply involved in spiritualism and scientific investigations, af Klint was inspired by the spirit world. In 1896, she and four other women artists founded a group known as “The Five”. They met on Fridays for prayers and seances, where they believe they received messages and commissions from spirits. One of these commissions resulted in the works in this exhibition.

It’s all wonderfully kooky. When I tell Manthel I’m planning on bringing four of my witchiest women friends with me to the opening, she laughs. She began her career in the feminist art scene and couldn’t be more delighted to be bringing powerful woman artists to Wellington.

“It’s kind of cool that the last big show we had, Cindy Sherman, was a woman. And this next big one is a woman. In fact, over half of the exhibiting artists we’ve had in the past year have been women.”

Manthel studied drama at Wellington’s Victoria University, then taught for a while at Newlands College, before escaping to the stage, working at Downstage and The Depot theatres. “Theatre was my first iteration,” she says. She was a member of Vital Statistics, a women’s theatre collective funded by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (now the Ministry for Women) to tour cabaret performances around the country in the mid-80s, in celebration of the UN’s Decade for Women. They had a ball, performing in schools and small communities.

But the theatre life became hard when she had children, so she enrolled at Elam and completed a Fine Arts degree in painting. It was a natural move. Her mother Vivian Manthel is a painter and she had been surrounded by art her whole life. After Elam, she ran an exhibiting space and open studio in Auckland, which meant seeking funding and looking after sponsors. That experience translated easily to her role at City Gallery Wellington.

“You’ve got to have passion for the arts, and you’ve got to understand that it needs support, and know how to get it, and keep it. Those are the really fundamental things that make it all possible.”

Her understanding of art and the artistic process is a huge benefit as well.

“It keeps you authentic. If I ask an artist to come to an event and meet some patrons and give a talk, I know what they’re going through. I know how exposed artists can feel in that environment, so I can broker it sensitively. And because I’ve got a fine art degree, I can talk about the shows and make them accessible both to patrons and corporate sponsors.”

Manthel had been living in Melbourne teaching and painting for six years before coming home to Wellington in 2015 to take up the Development Manager role. It was a new position, with the foundation in its infancy with only a few supporters. Today, there are 65, and it’s growing. There are two tiers of patrons: the Foundation Collective who pay an annual donation of $1,000, and the Foundation Contemporary who pay $2,500.

Getting it rolling was hard work. In the early days, Manthel devoted her energy to creating an identity for the foundation and a programme of events to bring people together. The aim was to create something that people could feel invested in.

“To me, it’s building a group of advocates for the gallery. It’s not just the money, it’s connecting people to the cause or the institution, and educating them about that, so they go in to fight for you.”

Supporters attend previews and get to know senior staff. The foundation’s events also take supporters out into the wider Wellington art world, to meet dealers and artists.

And, of course, the patrons and supporters will be the first New Zealand audience to see the af Klint exhibition. It has been the focus of their recent fundraising efforts, such as seeking a sponsor for each of The Ten Largest. These 10 paintings, each over three metres tall, represent the stages of human life, and form the centrepiece of the exhibition.

This exhibition brings the New Zealand art scene to the gallery also, to help create a hub of art, conversation, and support. The companion exhibition, Pages of Mercury, by local artists Andrew Beck and Séraphine Pick, will show work inspired by Rita Angus’s moon drawings, which resemble af Klint’s work in their heavily symbolic, celestial mood.

Manthel loves involving local artists wherever she can. Taking af Klint’s group of five as a reference point, the foundation had five New Zealand women artists – Star Gossage, Emma Camden, Kirsten Sutherland, Kāryn Taylor, and Lucinda Barrett – each make new works inspired by af Klint, to be sold for fundraising.

Bringing af Klint to Wellington has not been without its challenges, further complicated with restrictions and delays due to Covid. The Swedish Foundation, who look after af Klint’s work, understandably have very specific requirements, from insurance and security to the gallery’s atmospheric conditions. The paintings are fragile, with The Ten Largest painted in egg tempera, a delicate paint made from egg yolks mixed with pigment.

“To even get a truck that could hold The Ten Largest and transport them down from Auckland was a challenge,” Manthel laughs. The complexity of the undertaking makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she says. The chances of these paintings travelling this far from Sweden ever again are very slim.

“With these sorts of blockbuster shows, we’re really bringing the world to New Zealand.” Bringing the world to Wellington is more important than ever, now that it’s almost impossible to go out and see the world ourselves. And Manthel thinks af Klint in particular, with her sense of higher spiritual purpose, is one of the best things we could see as we struggle on through the pandemic.

“People are searching for something spiritual that keeps them grounded, inspired, or connected. This is such a timely show.”


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