Opinion: City Gallery is being thrown under a bus

The Director and Chief Curator are critical to maintaining the reputation and programing of a contemporary art gallery, says Alan Judge. He explains why he’s firmly against the proposed restructure at City Gallery Wellington.


Source: City Gallery Wellington

Experience Wellington, a Wellington City Council controlled organisation, is well advanced with an internal restructure that is having a swift and devastating effect on the functioning and reputation of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi and indeed of Wellington’s standing as New Zealand’s cultural capital. The plans have shocked staff and many Wellingtonians. City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi is our gallery, serving our community, we should be consulted.


The Gallery is part of Experience Wellington, an organisation that also operates Capital E, Space Place, Nairn Street Cottage, Wellington Museum, and the Cable Car Museum. The restructure will centralise the leadership of these individual organisations and disestablish the roles of director and chief curator at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.


The proposal is being presented as “operational” which avoids the need for public consultation. However, the changes proposed are structural, substantial, and far reaching. They will dramatically and forever change the nature of the Gallery, how it operates, and what it can deliver.


City Gallery Wellington is a hub for Wellingtonians interested in the arts. Many of you will have been to Thursday Open Late Nights for film, art, poetry and talks. Your children may have taken part in one of its many educational programmes. You, and your friends and family, will have been challenged and excited by international and New Zealand artists including emerging young Wellington artists shown by the gallery. These artists are from diverse backgrounds and represent many ethnicities.


Although you will have been in the gallery for events, exhibitions and opening nights you may not be aware how critical the positions of Director and Chief Curator are to maintaining the reputation and programing of a contemporary art gallery.


Building an exciting and challenging exhibition programme with constrained funding requires specialised knowledge, an intellectual curiosity, and wide national and international networks in the art world. Those skills are relevant for all curators but for City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, which is in the unique position for a metropolitan gallery in New Zealand of having no permanent collection, they come into particular focus. The Chief Curator is the core of that curatorial endeavour.


In the art world getting access to loans and exhibitions is as much about the standing of the Director and trust in the relationship between Gallery Directors and those providing loans of artworks as it is trust in the institution.


Under the restructuring proposed, the Gallery Director position will be disestablished and replaced by a functional leader of Toi and Taonga working across all the organisations under Experience Wellington. The result will be to severely dilute the specialised expertise and time commitment required to run a leading contemporary art gallery such as City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.


With respect, Experience Wellington does not have the mana or skills required of a national art or museum institution such as Te Papa. We are reliant on the Director and curatorial team of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi to deliver art experiences to Wellingtonians. Without them, this will not happen.


Our elected representatives on the Wellington City Council are hiding behind the CCO structure and the label of “operational change” and are choosing to ignore the many representations by supporters of the Gallery, leading art directors in Australia and New Zealand, Wellington artists and Wellingtonians who care deeply about City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi and are firmly against the restructuring proposal.


There is one thing on which we agree with Experience Wellington which is that it is essential to question the role of these institutions and the way they operate and evolve – particularly in relation to scholarship and practice in Te Toi Māori and Te Ao Māori. However, Wellingtonians have the right to be part of this process. The answer is not to gut the Institutional knowledge of the Gallery team but to improve governance.


Unfortunately the risks associated with the proposed restructure are already playing out. A leading international art institution has put any loans to City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi on hold as has a major New Zealand collection.


Our universities have firmly denounced the proposal, one withdrawing interns in curatorial practice on the basis that the Gallery will no longer provide a suitable learning environment under the proposed structure.


Potential funders and sponsors of a major exhibition proposed for later this year are putting their commitment on hold until the outcome of this restructuring is known. The implication is that if it proceeds, their funding commitment will not.


Leading art directors around New Zealand are of one voice that this restructure will diminish the mana of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi and therefore Wellington as a cultural capital.


Leading Māori and Pakeha artists are submitting against the restructure as are major art philanthropists.


Who did Experience Wellington consult? There is no art gallery management or curatorial skill set on the Board so how did Directors satisfy themselves that this was in the best interests of the Wellington arts community and Wellington’s brand as a cultural capital?


If you have partied on a Thursday night or come to an exhibition, if you are a parent of a child that has visited the gallery for an educational experience, or were part of the many outreach tours for organisations such as Plunket Group, Age Concern, or Autism New Zealand, please make your voice heard.


The City Gallery should not be thrown under a bus. Experience Wellington surely must listen to the voices of the arts community, take note of the expert advice, and step back and allow an independent review of the structure and governance of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi. Only then can we all get back to doing what we really want to do – that is enjoy great art, safe in the knowledge that City Gallery will continue to be a nationally significant institution in the cultural capital of Aoteroa New Zealand.


 

Alan Judge has been involved with the City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi for 20 years first as the Chair of EY (an accounting firm and major sponsor of the gallery), a trustee and Chair of the City Gallery Wellington Foundation, and now as an individual patron. He is passionate about the arts in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.