Tuesday, September 13, 2016

No show

OK, so it wasn’t the most original idea in the world, but Te Papa always said it was going to tell us our stories, the stories of Our Place. It then went on to spend many millions of dollars in purchasing items that would help that story telling. Most recently there’s the $1.5 million it paid for View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers’ cattle painted in 1861 by William Strutt.  All this means that when Toss Woollaston’s painting Poet by the sea (1959) came to market in the Tim and Sherrah Francis auction, it seemed a natural fit for Te Papa.

The Poet by the sea is a knotted array of cultural aspirations. Its subject is Charles Brasch, acknowledged as the cultural big cheese of the 1950s (poet, friend, editor, collector, high-minded fan). The painter is Woollaston who at this time carried the burden of finding the soul of NZ. The collectors were Tim and Sherrah Francis who were committed to the importance of a distinctively NZ culture and history. And to cap it off, Peter Simpson’s recent book Bloomsbury South describes the story in detail (with photographs). It’s a heavy-duty painting showing real cultural dynamics at play. It could hardly be more central to the National Collection and the story of NZ art.

But as we all know, Te Papa didn’t even make an appearance at the auction and made not a single purchase. Te Papa didn’t lose out to some deep-pocketed Auckland art fanatic at the auction either; it simply decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. Something’s afoot, especially when you remember that Te Papa spent $700,000 at the Paris Family auction in 2012 and hasn’t been shy to spend big bucks. Let’s recall:

Colin McCahon, A painting for Uncle Frank, 1980, purchased in 2000 for $2 million
Colin McCahon, Walk (series C), 1973, purchased in 2004 for $2.75 million
John Webber, Poetua, 1785, purchased in 2010 for $1.97 million
Michael Parekowhai, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011, purchased in 2012 for $1.3 million

In the very active Te Papa rumor mill it’s claimed that the institution’s collecting policy for art is shifting. Buying back to fill out the collection is out. Buying forward to prioritise the contemporary is in.  Can this be true? The last four curatorial hires all specialise in earlier work. Smart move Te Papa. Crazy times ahead.

All this would certainly help to explain why Te Papa wasn’t at the Francis auction to pick up high quality works by both neglected and well-known artists. Our top ten of these would be:

Philip Trusstum Pale blue square $9,000
Douglas MacDairmid Portrait of Akbar Tyabi $6,250
M T Woollaston Poet by the sea (A Portrait of Charles Brasch) $80,000
Richard Killeen Rot $9,500
Ross Ritchie After Ingres $10,600
Adele Younghusband Still life with candle and vase of flowers $9,250
Charles Tole A map of the Auckland province $5,600
H Linley Richardson Self portrait $2,500
Robert Ellis City $4,000
Dennis Knight-Turner Untitled $9,000

Image: Poet by the sea (a portrait of Charles Brasch) in the Te Papa storage racks (#notgoingtohappen)