Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Artless maneuvering at Te Papa

We’ve been critics of the Te Papa approach from way back and over the years there’s been little to make you feel any better. Simple story telling, a 12-year-old reading age and heavy-handed design don't play well with the visual arts.  The problems are embedded in the building. There’s never been a purpose built art space, for instance. The top floor corridor gallery was originally pegged for a reception space until the Gibbs generously paid for it to be converted and the current art galleries are modified library and office spaces. Sure you can modify existing spaces to make great art spaces, it’s just that Te Papa can’t.

Then there’s the specialist staffing problems. Extended periods without the right expertise (caused by either a desire to save salaries or the reluctance of anyone with a reputation to work in the place) have drained energy and focus. It’s left to young enthusiasts to struggle with the bureaucracy and without an appointed senior curator for years.

But you do have to feel sorry for the now ex Chief Executive Mike Houlihan. He came to Te Papa with extensive experience in museum practice and the will to make some changes. The trouble was the first big change he put on the table – sorting out the art exhibition problem by developing a new national art gallery – was killed stone dead with no public discussion, and delivered by the PM himself in the Dominion Post: "The Government doesn’t have $1 million to build a new national art gallery." That public humiliation (Te Papa immediately hid itself away in a corporate visioning process for a year) certainly did for the progress thing. 

Now thanks to the abrupt departure of Houlihan more uncertainty and pressure on the staff as Te Papa's Board spend six to nine months searching for a replacement. It's certainly one way to change direction but it will put the heat on an organisation who's track record on filling positions is not great.  Over half of the members of the new Board [link] have a serious commitment to the visual arts so we should expect that to impact what happens next. One thing is for sure, the new CE of Te Papa is unlikely to be a military historian.