Wellington Scoop

Changes at City Gallery – issues of concern and risk

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND -City Gallery Open late March 05, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Elias Rodriguez/ http://marktantrum.com)

Open Letter to Mayor Andy Foster
From Jim Barr and Mary Barr

We are writing about the restructuring of institutions overseen by Experience Wellington (formerly known as the Wellington Museums Trust). We have had a long relationship with the Wellington City Gallery. We have curated exhibitions, sat on panels, lent work to exhibitions, spoken at openings and twice had our own art collection shown in the gallery.

We have seen the paper prepared for the restructuring process and there are a number of issues that concern us. These are:

• This major change to the City Gallery is being made as though it operates in isolation. There has been no consultation apart from with directly affected staff. And prior to the announcement there were no discussions with relevant stakeholders such as long term supporters, regional art institutions, sponsors, and art practitioners. They are all a vital part of the City Gallery’s community built up over decades.

• This major change is being presented as an ‘operational process’ only. This is clearly absurd. Centralising the Experience Wellington institutions and removing current leadership is a major strategic shift. We have heard talk of removing siloes and increasing diversity and these indicate significant new directions for the institutions.

We want to be clear that we have no objection to change, but for it to be embraced by the community we ask for the following materials be made public (or at the very least to you and your Council) by Experience Wellington.

1 A clear statement of the limitations Experience Wellington has identified in the way City Gallery operates currently, a clear statement of how Experience Wellington plans to address these limitations strategically, and a clear presentation of how the new structure will deliver what is required to Wellington.

2 A sample programme we can expect to see in the City Gallery next year when the proposed changes are in place.

3 A clear understanding of how the new management structure can operate across its very diverse specialist institutions.

4 Confirmation that Experience Wellington can deliver the specialist programming, content development, and professional relationships we know are required for a successful cultural institution.

5 Confirmation that the City Gallery Foundation which has significant financial resources is prepared to continue its support under the new structure.

6 Given the radical nature of the changes proposed, we would also expect some sort of risk assessment. Even from the outside, the risk to the city feels abnormally high for an institutional restructuring.

We are concerned that the current proposal is being presented as straightforward and ‘operational’ for something that is in reality a high risk complex major shift in strategic direction. We are asking that you and the City Council acknowledge that these changes are consequential and take steps to ensure that a robust and well thought through process is set in place.

Andrew Wood: Appalled by proposed changes to City Gallery


  1. Toni, 2. May 2021, 11:09

    Shades of the Camera Base closure, as “prior to the announcement there were no discussions with relevant stakeholders such as long term supporters, regional art institutions, sponsors, and art practitioners.” The WCC’s obvious disregard for the community and stakeholders is very apparent.

  2. Concerned Wellingtonian, 2. May 2021, 12:11

    What involvement, if any, have our Councillors had with any of this? Did the arts portfolio holder know what was going on?

  3. Adam Crisp, 2. May 2021, 12:30

    Great letter with excellent questions. Come on Andy Foster, give us answers. WCC is not a business that you run, it is funded by Wellington.

  4. Jon Coutts, 3. May 2021, 10:29

    Under the current directorship and head curator the City Gallery has held exhibitions with imagination, intelligence and taste. Anything that threatens this tenure is alarming. As stated in the letter, a sample of what patrons could expect after the proposed changes would be a good place to start. The WCC has a very high threshold to clear to convince anyone of their competence.

  5. Jo, 3. May 2021, 10:32

    Cripes! This council is hellbent on destroying the things that are good about Wellington!

  6. Claire, 3. May 2021, 13:02

    Is this a money saving exercise? If so it’s the wrong place to do so. A line by line cost saving of activities in the back office makes more sense.

  7. Lulu, 3. May 2021, 20:23

    Excellent letter. This idea of centralising the capital’s arts and culture is about as appealing to Wellingtonians as the Super City model.

    Great idea from the Barrs to request the proposal be made public. And yes, let’s see a robust risk assessment, and how those risks will be best mitigated… probably with a team of specialists, like a Gallery Director and Chief Curator… oh wait…

  8. Alan Judge, 3. May 2021, 21:06

    I have been a supporter of the City Gallery Wellington for over 20 years as a partner and Chair of a principal corporate sponsor, a trustee and former Chair of the City Gallery Wellington Foundation and continue as a Patron.

    The first issue that causes me concern is that Experience Wellington intends forming a final view on the “structural” changes before Wellington City Council has finalised its view on Aho Tini 2030. How can a CCO be allow to restructure a critical Wellington arts institution before the finalisation of the arts and culture strategy for Wellington City? It does not make any sense.

    Has any consideration been given to the importance of the City Gallery Wellington as a national (and not solely a regional) asset for the visual arts in Aotearoa New Zealand?

    Who has Experience Wellington consulted on this restructure? Leading Gallery Directors/Curators/The Arts Foundation/Artists would all understand the importance of national and international relationships to maintain high quality programming.

    With respect, Experience Wellington is not a mini Te Papa and is therefore unlikely as an institution to have the mana or relationships to bring leading contemporary art to Wellington. Those roles normally sit with a trusted and connected Gallery Director and leading curatorial talent.

    City Gallery Wellington is almost unique in New Zealand as it does not have a collection which heightens the need for strong relationships and curatorial expertise to bring the best of New Zealand and the world to Wellington.

    It is becoming almost fanciful to assert that Wellington is the cultural capital of New Zealand.

  9. Joolzz, 3. May 2021, 23:20

    Alan, it’s the same old ambush tactic; before people figure out what’s going on. Time to get angry people. Let them know how you feel.


  10. Concerned Wellingtonian, 4. May 2021, 8:19

    Alan Judge, thank you.

  11. Wystan Curnow, 7. May 2021, 1:30

    I would like to strongly support Jim and Mary Barr’s letter of concern. Like Alan Judge I have been a long time supporter of the City Gallery, more than 30 years in my case. It has been a privilege to have been invited to contribute exhibitions, lectures, essays, to its programme over that time.

    The quality and significance of City Gallery’s contribution to the national conversation in the visual arts have long made it the envy of those of us who live outside of Wellington. What City Gallery has to say about contemporary art has come to matter more to us than the offerings of the public galleries of Auckland, Christchurch or Dunedin, and that is because of the quality of its leadership.

    So it is profoundly puzzling and dismaying to hear that Experience Wellington understands so little about the City Gallery’s place in the culture, that it imagines it can improve its performance by getting rid of its greatest assets Self-harming of this sort through museum misgovernance by local bodies has a long history in this country. This sort monkeying around with support structures belongs to a time before we had professionals to run museums, artists with real life careers, and audiences whose interest in art was assumed to be serious.

    Dr. Wystan Curnow, Professor emeritus, Companion NZOM

  12. Toni, 7. May 2021, 9:24

    Unfortunately, as with many other WCC in-house decisions which impact on the public, who then become justifiably angry, the councillors go into hiding, while the WCC ignores all requests and concerns, and carries on with its controversial decision. It is always a no-win situation for the public.

  13. Marion Leader, 7. May 2021, 15:09

    It does seem true that “the councillors go into hiding” at times like this. Who is the most responsible? Why the silence? Was any warning given to the Council?

  14. Grant, 8. May 2021, 15:06

    The larger New Zealand arts community is perplexed by such a short sighted response to replace these two professionals with what appears to be stated as a necessary cultural shift to Māori management. Surely with a Tiriti o Waitangi partnership, the inclusion of someone of Māori descent should be looked at without the elimination of the Pakeha component of the management team. This sort of political brinkmanship is unhelpful. Until money is provided for the extra staffing to better reflect a bipartisan Waitangi model, there is no point dismantling the core of this team unless of course there is a more dubious Machiavellian plan, designed to force the closure and repurposing of the City Gallery. The resource that these two experienced Art administrators offer far outweighs any wrongly perceived benefits of the disestablishment of their key roles of director and Chief Curator; change could be accommodated in other ways. Their experience and networks both local and international will be lost forever if this shameful decision to restructure them out of their integral positions is carried through.
    Can the inclusion of treaty obligations be improved? No doubt it can and should, but this fiasco is a case of a misjudged social engineering, based on unoriginal and lazy thinking. It is not fit for purpose, and is not mandated by the art communities of Wellington and New Zealand.
    To Dr Sarah Rusholme, it is not too late to reverse this decision and prevent an unmitigated and foreseeable disaster.
    Ka mua, ka muri: Looking back in order to move forward.

  15. Gregory Burke, 16. May 2021, 10:24

    I offer comment as the inaugural and later head curator at the gallery, and a former director of four galleries in NZ and Canada.

    The current gallery opened in the retrofitted former library, but its origins date to the 1940’s when that library began staging exhibitions by McCahon, Woollaston and many others. In 1980 the same library opened, on behalf of Council, the Wellington City Art Gallery. Its first director reported to the librarian. The gallery professionalized through the 80s leading to the director reporting direct to Council and the establishment of curatorial and education positions. Subsequently it focused on infrastructure and re-opened in 1993, with a specialist staff and a purpose-responsive building up there with the best. City Gallery had arrived.

    The next step should have been to have its own governing board. As examples, both the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, started as municipal entities before becoming not-for-profit corporations, with governing boards. Instead, Council devolved responsibility to Experience Wellington to oversee the gallery as one of a number of diverse entities. The director no longer reported to Council but to one person, a return to the 1980 situation. The City Gallery head is now the Experience Wellington CEO, who can appoint gallery staff, which is what is currently proposed with the removal of the role of director.

    Reportedly, a major driver of the position’s removal is the embracing of te ao Māori. The gallery, though, was a leader in embracing te ao Māori. I think of the 1990 exhibition Mana Tiriti: The Art of Protest and Partnership and the 1993 opening exhibition by Jacqueline Fraser, He Tohu: The New Zealand Room, which honored Māori poet and author Jacqui Baxter, who ran the library’s New Zealand collection from 1969 to 1982. If Experience Wellington seeks to further embrace te ao Māori it can affect this through policy and performance targets. To use the goal as a pretext to disestablish the fundamental position of director is therefore troubling.

    Galleries can be governed effectively as a group. Examples include four museums that make up the Carnegie in Pittsburgh and four galleries that comprise Tate in the UK. There is strong mission alignment between these entities and their governing bodies. Their origins both go back to a single building and given Tate’s shared collection and the Carnegie’s shared endowment, a single governing body is practical. However, all these galleries/museums have their own director who appoints their own staff. Carnegie and Tate recognize the vital role directors play in building reputation, goal setting, artistic development, fundraising, nurturing essential relationships and caring for the welfare of staff. The principle of a gallery having a director is inviolate within the international community of museums and I can’t cite one example of a gallery of standing being managed without a director. Many have warned of reputation damage and philanthropic collapse if the restructure is enacted. Add to this risk a corrosive and enduring impact on staff morale.

    Gregory Burke