Wellington Scoop

Art, again


by Lindsay Shelton
Wellington regained its “capital of culture” title at the weekend, when Te Papa re-opened its art gallery. For too many weeks it’s been embarrassingly impossible to explain to visitors why the city’s two biggest art galleries have both been closed.

Te Papa promised us that its new art space – 35 per cent bigger than before – would enable it to show more of the national collection. A promise that sets up great expectations for visitors who’ve been concerned that so little of the collection could be seen in the past.

First response comes when you enter through the new high space curated and scaffolded by Michael Parekowhai. Forget his elephant above the room. The first thing you see are Colin McCahon’s magnificent Northland Panels, hung disconcertingly opposite two big Parekowhai acrylic figures – Constable Plum Bob and Hoodwinked – which children are encouraged to touch.

There’s nothing to discourage the same children from bouncing across to the million dollar McCahon artworks and touching them as well – because there’s an alarming lack of protection for them. A Te Papa staff member is on guard alongside the panels, spending all day trying to stop people from touching them. But with nothing to indicate that they cannot be touched – no white line, no barrier, no sign – the job is proving impossible. More than thirty people have been logged as touching the fragile work in the first two days of the show.

The Te Papa website describes the Parekowhai-designed space as providing “alternative ways to encounter and experience art. Whimsical but with a critical edge.” The lack of protection for a major art work seems irresponsible, rather than whimsical. As you walk further into the big new space, concern for the McCahons stays with you.

Then comes the powerful retrospective by Auckland fashion activists Pacific Sisters, making a strong visual statement, and telling a little-known (in Wellington) story of how the clothing was created. But to see anything more from the national collection, you need to climb the new stairs (alongside a splendid work by Richard Killeen).


The most striking element on the top level is the red portrait wall, with 35 paintings, almost all from the 19th century. Impressively hung and selected, making a strong statement not only about art but about New Zealand as well.

Works from the national collection are grouped in two categories: Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand, and Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa. Between them, these two halves of the top floor include glimpses of the work of major artists – two McCahons, two works by Ralph Hotere, some of Len Lye’s films from the 1930s. And single examples of paintings by other key New Zealand artists. (A few of them with white lines on the floor, reminding viewers not to get within touching distance.) But you are left wanting more than glimpses – more by McCahon (there are 70 of his works in Te Papa’s storerooms), more by Hotere. More by the most famous names.

There’s a different, more focussed view of New Zealand at the City Gallery, which reopened earlier this month with new front doors and an ironically curated new exhibition about New Zealand’s image.


Its compelling show – “who we thought we were and who we think we are” – includes this magnificent work by John Drawbridge, painted in the 1960s for New Zealand House in London, but brought back to New Zealand in the 1990s.

Parekowhai is represented too, with his Steinway piano sculptured as He Kōrero Pūrākau mō te Awanui o te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, as well as Michael Stevenson’s confronting Trekka, both on loan from Te Papa, and both selected to represent New Zealand at Venice Biennales.

From the 1970s, Wellington filmmaker Hugh Macdonald’s spectacular three screen This Is New Zealand, from which the show borrows its title. It was created for a World’s Fair in Tokyo, and then brought home to New Zealand where it became a box-office hit in local cinemas after they were equipped with three projectors.

The work of Wellington advertising man Len Potts is also included – not only with a National Party commercial featuring Rob Muldoon backed by a massed choir, but also “Sailing Away,” his promotional video for New Zealand’s first Americas Cup race, featuring every wellknown face from 1986, singing with such patriotic verve that it went to number one on the charts and stayed there for nine weeks. (New Zealand’s Triumph of the Will, suggest the curators.)


You leave the City Gallery amused and thoughtful about the ways in which New Zealand has depicted itself.

Leaving Te Papa – you worry about so much empty space that could be used to show more of the national collection. The former Icon restaurant – empty. A big exhibition room for temporary exhibitions – empty. The high walls above the ramp leading up to the marae – blank, where once art was hanging. But perhaps this is what the curators wanted: to leave us wanting more?

Howard Davis: Questionable curatorial decisions
Te Papa: PM opens Toi Art


  1. Frances, 19. March 2018, 18:09

    When I entered Toi Art, I thought they’d forgotten to take the scaffolding down; when I realised it was a Parekowhai installation I’m afraid I took it to mean “work in progress”, which is apt given the things the new gallery doesn’t satisfy. While the space is certainly an improvement on the old gallery as well as beautiful in itself, I don’t think the National Collection can ever be properly serviced by its current position, until it gets its own building and institution it will be forever mismanaged and forlorn.

    Moreover, despite the new gallery being larger it feels as though there’s less in it. I was particularly struck by the absence of a great quantity of art in frames – paintings, photos, prints etc – there was one Rita Angus, three (that I can remember) McCahons, and just a lack of paintings in general.

  2. Traveller, 20. March 2018, 11:00

    Irresponsible – I’d also say disrespectful for the Northland Panels, which the curators should know is one of the major works of 20th Century New Zealand art.