Christchurch Art Gallery

Jenny Harper

Christchurch Art Gallery

Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu Corner Worcester Boulevard and Montreal Street PO Box 2626 CHRISTCHURCH 8140 New Zealand

Christchurch, New Zealand

New Zealand 2013 Museum Awards laureate for Art exhibition

Good Art Really Matters

Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu opened on its current site in May 2003, having inherited the collections of the former Robert McDougall Art Gallery, a stately 1930s building in the Botanic Gardens, Christchurch New Zealand.  Back then no-one imagined the devastation that would literally turn this city up-side-down, the earthquakes of 2010-11.

The Art Gallery building went from being Civil Defence Headquarters for ten days in September 2010 to hosting an amazingly popular art exhibition Ron Mueck (October 2010-January 2011), to setting up and opening three new exhibitions on 10 February 2011 prior to enduring a further major earthquake on 22 February 2011. This time, the Gallery became Emergency Operations Centre for seven months.  There was very little damage to collection items and the primary building structure responded well, but currently the Gallery awaits full repairs, including retrofitting base isolation to ensure more future seismic capability. We are still unable to project a reopening date with confidence, but hope this may be achieved in late 2015.

Despite being closed, however, Art Gallery staff have turned to ensuring art's presence in the city in a series of projects beyond the Gallery's walls, ls"Outer Spaces'. We were delighted to win the national award for art exhibition excellence for this in 2013.

Michael Parekowhai's 2011 Venice Biennale presentation, On first looking into Chapman's Homer, was unforgettable in Christchurch when it showed here for four weeks. It would have been a powerful and memorable highlight of our programme at any time. But, following Venice and also a showing at Museacute;e du quai Branly in Paris, its return to New Zealand was amplified unexpectedly by the poignancy of this city's surrounding earthquake devastation. Against a background of empty sites, demolition rubble and toppled shop fronts, two sculpted bronze bulls atop bronze grand pianos entered this city's imagination in a special way. Who would have predicted during their time in the luxurious surroundings of Venice that a year later the bulls and carved piano would become so symbolic of surreal events in this most English of New Zealand cities?

Initially, we imagined locating the playable piano in the Gallery's airy foyer with the bronze bulls on the forecourt of our home base. But these and all previous suppositions came to an inglorious halt with earthquakes on 4 September 2010 and, worse for the central city, on 22 February 2011.

So it's an interesting moment to reflect on the roller-coaster of adjustment and dramatic change within this city. Equally, it's inspiring to consider what our artists, gallery staff and others in the arts sector have achieved and how reinforced we are by responses to the continued showing of differing types of art, all now with the ls"temporary' trade mark that accompanies our situation. Gains sit alongside huge losses in our collective memories; and difficult though it is, it's also hard to imagine another place in the world where what we currently do makes such a difference. But gallery or none, we're here because good art really matters.

Initially the Art Gallery was considered to be the safest building in the central city and was taken over by national and civil defence as their emergency headquarters, being vacated when the demolition of a precarious apartment building next door became inevitable (we had to move our entire art collection to ensure its safety). Right through our ls"occupation', however, we were optimistic that we would re-open to the public once they left.

Staff planned no fewer than three re-openings and, it's hard to believe, thinking back to then that these same gallery spaces are now largely abandoned and eerily empty as we await progress with our re-build. However, as the ground settled after the February ls"quake, we came to realise the building must be re-levelled with greater seismic capability incorporated into its repair if we were to be able to operate as before.
So, what to do?  Initially, we tackled back-of-house projects (copyright clearance, revisions of procedures and forms). However, as time passed, we embraced the inevitability of becoming a ls"gallery without walls'. In effect, we decided to engage with audiences on two fronts: by enhancing our existing but localised Outer Spaces programme and projecting art's presence into the city; and by increasing our web presence, maintaining a cyberspace profile.

This presentation is concerned with the Outer Spaces projects for which the gallery was awarded an important exhibition excellence award in 2013. 

Before the earthquakes, the Gallery had commissioned a series of works around and on our building, but we began to think further afield, installing video in a near-by deserted house for dawn-to-dusk viewing.  A large wall painting by Wayne Youle, I seem to have temporarily misplaced my sense of humour, was presented on a large wall in the suburb of Sydenham in collaboration with Gap Filler.  We took over and opened an upstairs space in Madras Street with an exhibition by Julia Morison, Meet me on the other side,  continuing to show there with Rolling Maul, a three-weekly changing series, designed to show work by local artists affected by the earthquake.
Another Outer Spaces project of interest in a heritage context was Reconstruction: conversations on a city which we presented on continuously lit display boards along Worcester Boulevard. Showing images from various collections it was designed to open up conversations around the future shape of Christchurch, an important discussion for us to engage with.  Reconstruction was inevitably read as a eulogy on the pasts of our city with the earthquakes revealed as the latest in multiple layers of destruction of the past, most city-sanctioned and the result of human indifference.

The concept of Outer Spaces  stretched to Australia with a Shane Cotton exhibition presented in collaboration with IMA Brisbane during the Asia-Pacific Triennial in December 2012; it was also shown also at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney and at City Gallery Wellington in 2013.

So far we've presented some 80 projects, including: 20 smaller scale exhibitions in off-site spaces; Art in Unexpected Places; and Faces from the Collection.  We've had two grand community events, Populate! on our tenth anniversary in 2013 and another in March 2014 at the opening of a current family-friendly exhibition, Burster Flipper Wobbler Dripper Spinner Stacker Shaker Maker.

We've taken the view throughout that, while the Gallery is closed, it is crucial to provide support to the visual arts community and to feed the public imagination, locally and further afield. So it's rewarding to share our experiences - and to be noticed, as we have been and are increasingly.

Amazingly, a manifesto which we developed as part of a 5-year vision exercise before we closed, continues to remind us of our purpose throughout these difficult times:
We''re here because good art really matters.

We connect people with art, ideas about art and with artists.
Their creativity inspires ours.
We are crucial to the heart of the city.
People identify Christchurch as important because of us and what we do.
We set standards others aspire to. We do great things that are recognised and celebrated (and we''re not afraid to break the rules - even our own)


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