Tuesday, January 31, 2012

You be the Captain

While the Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa hunt for middle management, the City Gallery in Wellington is after a director. You can check out the job details and apply if you have a mind to here. It’s fair to say the importance of who takes over from previous director Paula Savage is underpinned by some serious challenges to the City Gallery that have been building over some time. 

The first is a growing distance from its audience. There are various ways to assess this but the simplest is the body count through the door. Two half-year closures to build an extension have disguised a sharp drop in attendances and a recent trend to charge exhibitions like Oceania hasn't done much to help the Gallery climb out of this hole. Last year for instance average monthly attendances at the City Gallery were down by 35% and have dropped by 69,000 from 2008, the last full year reported before the extensions. 

Charging for entry can rip the heart out of attendances as the City Gallery has found to its cost. Works ok when you get it right as with Kusama in 2009 (although even then you can still struggle to break even on budget), but when it goes wrong it can be a real kick in the head. Roundabout in 2010 and Oceania in 2011 are examples. So the new director’s first task will be to rally support and convince the Wellington Museums Trust to get the idea of a permanent door charge right out of its head. It has already proved the best way to kill attendances to publicly funded museums and galleries wherever it has been tried. Best of Three gave a good outline of the issues late last year. For a small local gallery like Wellington’s City Gallery without a classy permanent collection that can attract loads of tourists it will be fatal. 

Another challenge is how to re-energise the programme. Currently there is a lack of focus. Witness the presentation of two full-gallery contemporary NZ exhibitions dominated by sculpture right after one another (Prospect - NZ Art Now and The Obstinate Object - Contemporary NZ Sculpture). For a non-collecting institution programming and the quality of the exhibitions is what it's all about.

Staffing too is an issue. Under Paula Savage there has been a lot of churn some of it extremely unsettling like the loss of Kate Montgomery as senior curator. The timing of her departure has also probably meant goodbye to Robert Leonard as a potential replacement as well. Leonard certainly would have provided a strong much-needed point of view to the curatorial programme and added stability to the mix. It would also be a good thing if the new director could bring some energy and fresh ideas to the table. How about someone in their 30s or 40s?

Finally there is the sponsorship struggle and in this the City Gallery is certainly not alone. Since the 1990s the speed with which cultural institutions have expanded has increased their dependence on sponsorship. In the increasingly harsh economic environment it’s not looking like such a smart move. The City Gallery has been very fortunate to have the Wellington City Council as its major funder but as the Council itself comes under pressure it will need solid reassurance that the City Gallery is indispensable to the cultural mix of Wellington.

The selection of the new director for the City Gallery is critical. It will need someone with energy, determination and a compelling idea about the City Gallery’s role and potential. Business as usual won't do it.