Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Size matters

One element that brings a lot of humour to the art museum business is the marketing department. As the years have gone by these departments have drifted away from the core of museum activities to the point where their knowledge of the business often registers somewhere between scant and whatever. As a result public communication by museums often teeters on the hilarious. We saw a great example the other day on one of the billboards celebrating the new Auckland Art Gallery.

First up were the works on display. The exhibition illustrated seems to be some sort of Colin McCahon survey with the feature work being McCahon’s Victory over death 2 that is in the collection of the Australian National Gallery. You can imagine the ANG’s chagrin at this large scale reproduction when you consider they do not reproduce the painting on their website with the explanation: “Unable to display image due to Copyright Restrictions”.

Given the Auckland Art Gallery has one of the greatest collections of works by McCahon, it's hard to understand why it wouldn’t feature one of its own works, perhaps even one that hasn’t been seen for a while. Through the door on the billboard’s virtual gallery we can also see a slice of a Jump painting but hang on, what’s that large red abstract? It’s a Rothko, painting du jour for anyone wanting to plug a generic modern-art hole. This one is Light Red Over Black 1957 and is in the collection of the Tate in Britain.

On the left hand wall are two more ‘McCahon’ paintings, Clouds 3 and another that looks like it was either made by a drunk monkey or has been so distorted that any McCahonishness has long gone. And what about the scale? These two works are famously on paper and weigh in at 1.1 x .75 meters. Based on the Rothko they are shown here at nearly twice that size and shadowed as though they are stretched canvases. And then all the work in these new galleries is hung weirdly close to the floor with not a barrier in sight – definitely not the real museum world of international loans.

The purpose of these billboards and their virtual gallery depictions is to pump up expectations for new spaces and exciting new displays of art. As it's turned out what they offer is a WTF moment for anyone who takes visual art and the Auckland Art Gallery seriously.