Thursday, April 04, 2013

The volume business

For some time now Te Papa has been promising to up its art game on the fifth floor. Last week CE Mike Houlihan hit the ball right out of the park announcing on TV, “You’ll actually see the amount of space for art here at Te Papa growing by about 400 percent over the next four years.” We understand that this expansion involves refurbishing the spaces currently occupied by research collections and admin plus a big chunk of space on another floor. Over all we’re talking around 8,000 square meters of new space with access from the first floor. So what will be shown? Well, we even have a pretty good idea about that thanks to the new permanent collection hang Te Papa launched last week. 

Looking through the comprehensive presentation of art work and background material on the accompanying website, it seems the ‘new look’ has around 250 works on display in this first iteration. These are wrapped around Te Papa’s usual range of themes - Art of the twentieth century, Home, land and sea, Framing the view, Emblems of identity. It's what you might expect from a National institution but definitely more Tate Britain than Tate Modern. If you're looking for the more challenging art of the last twenty years this is not going to be for you. The most recent contribution is 25 works on paper by Andrew McLeod commissioned by Te Papa (maybe referencing its 1998 opening commissions by Jeff Thompson, Jim Speers, Gavin Chilcott, Jacqueline Fraser et al - and no, not that et al.) Then there's Michael Parekowhai with one work (the piano), Shane Cotton with a very small painting, Niki Hastings-McFall with a necklace, Yvonne Todd with a suite of images (not on the website as far as we could see) and three works from Australian Nick Mangan. Together they pretty much carry the load for the twenty first century.

Maybe the traditional wait-and-see for some consensus about who and what is important makes sense for Te Papa. Installations, performance art, video installations and more rambunctious contemporary work have always struggled on the fifth floor (although the new 8,000 squares may give new opportunities). 

More contentious though is the absence of some of the classic greats from Te Papa's collections. There is no sign, for example, of a major late work by Colin McCahon. Now that's something we'd argue should always be on display at Te Papa. And still there is the women thing. Six of the twelve shows include no women, and less than 15 are represented in the entire hang with only two of them born after 1950. 

NOTE: We did make an effort to see the new hang the day after it opened, but it was closed (who knew) so this post is based on the record of Te Papa’s new hang of their permanent collection as detailed on the website.