First up, Auckland now has a real art gallery. It’s the kind of institution a city the size of Auckland ought to have. There’s a lot of new exhibition space, a research library that's open six days a week instead of two and the corporate entertaining foyer turns out to be far less overbearing than was feared. Given what the architects had to cope with (a restricted site, incorporation of heritage buildings, trees and height restrictions) it’s probably inevitable there’s some complicated navigation, more corridors than you’d hope for and a few odd shaped spaces here and there. Overall though Auckland has got a building of substance and quality.
The opening suite of exhibitions is about the collections. It felt as though every one of the key works that have become so familiar in the Auckland Art Gallery's telling of New Zealand's art history was on show. With the exception of firmly placing contemporary Maori art into the mainstream, the story told by Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith way back in the late sixties seemed to remain pretty much intact. The other great debt is evident in the Gallery’s reliance on the Chartwell Collection to present its three gallery survey of contemporary art. The curatorial staff must lie awake at night praying that the Trust never takes pivotal works like Hotere’s massive mural Te Aupouri away from them.
The all-the-collection-that-fits focus in the contemporary galleries on the ground floor has resulted in some unfortunate overcrowding and a number of jarring juxtapositions. Overall it’s probably best to leave skying and double hanging to experts like Peter McLeavey. On level one the early art of New Zealand and art from Europe looks terrific. There's a lot of it and while easel painting and sculptures that love the plinth are an easier hanging proposition than your more unruly contemporary works, it is still great to see them displayed with such clarity and confidence.
On level two contemporary art gets a sharp smack from the architecture. Spaces intended to accommodate the contemporary programme are dominated by a handful of over-egged designer-pillars that are doomed to be a major distraction until they are inevitably dealt to. In the opening exhibitions on this floor et al. sensibly hid their pillar by wrapping it in black polythene, Peter Robinson and Dane Mitchell took the hit.
So now Auckland has an institution which will allow them to once more be the anchor of art in New Zealand. They have the collection, they have the resources, they have the public behind them, and now they have the building.
Image: Three large galleries for contemporary art on the ground floor