If you like the sound of sausage rolls washed down with a glass of red wine, you could do worse than angle for a place in a Te Papa focus group. Not only do you get free refreshments but there is also a $50 voucher from the Te Papa shop to sweeten the deal. The deal from your side is to agree to give two hours of your time to “explore and discuss ideas and concepts that Te Papa has about the re-development of our art exhibitions on level five.” Level five is the top floor of Te Papa given over to art in recent years and cobbled together out of the old library (hence the uncomfortably low ceiling) and the Boulevard Gallery.
Judging from what was proposed to the focus groups (we’re improvising here as participants are not allowed to take notes, photographs or remove or copy any of the Te Papa paperwork), Te Papa’s ideas for its dedicated art spaces seem pretty thin. They’re talking small, quick turnaround exhibitions, ‘hot-spot’ displays to, say, mark the death of an important artist, single painting focus exhibitions, that sort of thing. Tinkering.
Not really the way to build a reputation as a serious source of interpretation, judgement and history, and a long way from CE Mike Houlihan’s initial response to how art is shown at Te Papa. "You've got art at the top of the building. You have to take two lifts to get to it and that's not easy. If you were taking a slightly cynical view, you would say art is being sent back to the attic." Exactly.
One simple way to achieve the Houlihan dream would be to forget shuffling art around on the isolated fifth floor and take it downstairs where the action is.