Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Collect call

When the City Gallery in Wellington opens in late September it will have three new gallery spaces. The two on the top floor will cover off the old Hirschfeld Gallery (once wonderfully named Chez Alcove by a local wit) and add a space for Maori and Polynesian art that, in a curious architectural metaphor, is at the back of the building and furthest from the front door. Downstairs a new Russell Hancock Gallery will “replace the former cinema and will showcase the Civic art collection in a light-filled extended foyer space.”

Since 1993 when it moved to its present site, the City Gallery has made much of being New Zealand’s only Kunsthalle-type gallery (a Kunsthalle is a visual arts institution without a permanent collection and dedicated to the display of temporary and usually highly contemporary exhibitions) so this new collection function significantly changes the City Gallery brand. Kunsthalles live in the moment, permanent collections soak up history and are forever.

It’s hard to understand why the City Gallery has chosen to go down this route, particularly when you consider the collection it is inheriting. The Civic Collection consists of bits and pieces that have accumulated over the years to furnish Council offices with the addition of 24 works from the Hancock collection. For the large part, the collection is small-town provincial, focusing on “Wellington artists or artists important to Wellington” with predictable results. As far as we can tell there is only a nominal budget for purchases, so any development into the sort of collection to be expected of a city like Wellington is a long-shot with further gifts and bequests the best bet. A draft list of all the works in the Civic Collection is here and includes the Hancock bequest collection which is also separately listed here.

Institutions shape collections and collections shape institutions. While the first exhibition of works from the City Gallery’s new permanent collection will not be held until next February – Yayoi Kusama will take the space from October through January – the Gallery now faces a major challenge: how to keep creating a dynamic first impression for visitors as it attempts to ‘showcase’ a pool of work that falls far short of the standard set until now.
Image: The new Hancock gallery in construction