Monday, June 23, 2014

Te Papa plays the blame game

What a difference a couple of months can make. Start of May it was all you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about and reassurance.

Te Papa spokeswoman said the national museum was in a “comfortable” financial position.Dominion Post 2 May 2014

Te Papa chair Evan Williams said speculation over financial problems at Te Papa was untrue.  - 1 May 2014

But six weeks later and it’s the poor old Aztecs getting it in the neck.

“The first half of the year was awful. It was caused by losses on the Aztecs exhibition … and another exhibition called Colour & Light … and by the fact that Te Papa wasn’t operating within its budgets.”Te Papa chairman Evan Williams, Dominion Post 21 June 2014 

Right. Te Papa is in financial straits (down $4 million more than expected even with major operating cuts of $4million) This fact was only revealed after the media forced the museum out into the open.

Like many other museums in the world Te Papa has taken itself into the entertainment business and has had huge success when it comes to whales and hobbits. Getting it right for the visual arts, not so easy. And not so surprising either given that all too often Te Papa's technique for drawing big crowds for art is to drop in second level packaged international exhibitions.

You didn't need specialist knowledge to figure that the 2013 Warhol exhibition didn't have the quality of work needed to attract acclaim and crowds. As for the impressionist potboiler Colour & Light exhibition, dull and esoteric, it never had a chance. The thought that either of them might have been potential blockbusters is risible. And (for the record) Colour & Light was a 2013 disaster (13 July 2013-12 Jan 2014) not one of this year’s.

Then there’s shows like Aztecs: conquest and glory the current whipping boy. While the chair blames it for the latest losses there's a lot more here for Te Papa's Board to think about. There's no doubt that Aztecs contained some outstanding objects but why did Te Papa choose to invest so heavily in this particular exhibition? Its never shown any interest in the Aztecs since its blockbuster (and that one really was a blockbuster) back in 1983. It has no related work in its collections and no expertise on its staff or even in the region. With Aztecs in 2014 we were in cargo cult territory - and we didn't even get to have a belief system at the end.

So what's the answer? The first part of it is having smart curators with great connections and experience in collecting and research and programming. The second part is that you have to give them the time and the budgets to make solid shows, and lots of them. These have to range beyond the institution's own collections so that the visual arts programme of Te Papa can build audiences - people who keep coming back for more. Then there’s getting a new CE. When it comes to getting people through the door and great programmes everyone looks to Tate Modern. It is run by a curator.