Monday, May 20, 2013

Front Rhana

Is there a more important NZ art story than the appointment of a new director for the Auckland Art Gallery? Probably not and this time it comes with any amount of interesting baggage. For a start Devenport will be the first woman director of the Auckland Art Gallery, the fifth Australian (taking to over 50 percent the number of AAG directors that have come out of Australia) and will head a senior management team entirely composed of women. 

Devenport is of course from the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery that must now be the pre-eminent launch pad for senior art museum staff in this country. Cheryll Sotheran to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Te Papa, John McCormack and Pricilla Pitts to DPAG, Greg Burke to Toronto's Power Plant and Robert Leonard to the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Then there's the selection of Devenport when Christchurch Art Gallery's Jenny Harper is understood to have been in the running. As Harper is one of the most qualified museum professionals in the country you'd think this would be cause for at least some discussion. Devenport did after all come in from behind to beat the odds on favourite.

Plus there's Devenport’s commitment to Asian art. This focus was seen in her programming of the Govett-Brewster and will be complemented by her new principal curator Zara Stanhope who has just completed a PhD on cross cultural contemporary art practice with her research based in Asia. One in four people living in Auckland city identified with an Asian ethnicity in 2006, and this is expected to increase to one in three in 2021 so this appointment could bring big changes to the direction of the AAG. Devenport has already hinted at this. You would think, wouldn’t you, that combined these factors add up to a great story? So how surprising it is then to see the minor attention it has attracted.

The chronology. It seems that the Auckland Art Gallery issued an embargoed media release with the announcement sometime on Sunday 12 May. It was almost immediately broken by Metro magazine in a tweet at 7.28pm. The response on Twitter was muted to say the least. A few regulars picked up the early Metro tweet, including Leg of Lamb, Anthony Byrt, Courtney Johnson, Newstalk ZB and four others who retweeted Metro.

The one substantive comment we've found was made on Monday morning at 8.42am by Hamish Keith. He expressed dismay: “New Zealand’s greatest ever Director, Jenny Harper – passed over for Auckland Art Gallery job – bloody shame.”  And later tweeted that “…Jenny’s track record leadership and scholarship are among the best I have encountered in my career.”  

The AAG itself finally acknowledged the appointment with an oh-by-the-way tweet at 9.16am (“We are looking forward to our new director Rhana Devenport who starts in July.”) and that night Newstalk ZB made the announcement online at 6.24pm and half an hour later Scoop published the media release probably in line with the embargo.

On Tuesday morning OTN posted and the mainstream media came on board with the NBR taking up the story and filling it out with what appears to be interview material from Jenny Gibbs strongly in support of the appointment. Then at 5am on Wednesday the Taranaki Daily News ran the story and followed up the next day with a ‘first woman’ piece.

Sticking to its guns the AAG still has nothing on Facebook (apart from auto-postings from other pages), no news, no blog post and no sign of the media statement on its site. The New Zealand Herald, at least online, appears to have spiked the story.

The Auckland Art Gallery is the major art institution in NZ and yet no one seems all that interested in its leadership or what changes might be in store. There was a time when this sort of appointment might have made the front page of the Metropolitan daily rather than just raising a flutter of insider tweeting.

Image: The AAG announce the appointment of their new Director on Twitter