Friday, August 21, 2009

Dowse makes moves to flog off major McCahon

As the economic environment gets tougher, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later some enterprising Councillor would put up the idea of flogging the collection as a potential fundraiser for the City Coffers. That it has happened in Lower Hutt and is attached to one of Colin McCahon’s greatest works, Through the wall of death: a banner is deeply ironic. Back in 1978, after its purchase the previous year by then director Jim Barr, (God bless him) City Councillor Chen Werry claimed the painting was worthless. Now, 31 years later, a different set of councillors is complaining that it is worth too much (it was valued at $1.52 million in 2005) and should go on the block.

This coming Monday the Hutt City Council will decide whether or not to begin a consultation process that will release Through the wall of death for sale on the open market. (You can download the Colin McCahon paper for the Council meeting here.) Why this proposal has just been made public now is anybody’s guess as the push to sell the work started back when Tim Walker was director.

Through the wall of death was purchased in 1978 through a scheme run by the then Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council that offered public art institutions a dollar-for-dollar subsidy to buy difficult or expensive high quality works. This is something Hutt City Councillors might factor in when they cast their vote as to whether or not to cash up. This national support was the reason why they were able to purchase the work in the first place and demonstrates that these kind of works belong as much to the country as to the Hutt.

So what’s going to be done about this? You’d hope that the directors of the leading art museums (Jenny Harper, Chris Saines, and Paula Savage, the Dowse’s nearest professional colleague, in particular) will at least be sending a representative to the Council meeting to put forward a plan to keep the work in public hands. On the other hand, there’s every chance they don’t even know what’s going on – it’s that sort of profession.

Whatever they do though, it will be a tough sell. Over the years the Dowse has changed its contemporary art focus and made much of this new direction with major renaming and rebranding as The New Dowse. In the process Through the wall of death has only made rare appearances since the early 1980s when it was pretty much on permanent display. It’s not hard to see how Councillors who have been sold The New Dowse’s popularist approach “Creativity in progress” feel game to question why the Council should hold onto high value, high status paintings like Through the wall of death, paintings that now seem way off brand.

One thing is for sure, without a concerted effort by our cultural bureaucrats, backed by strong public support, there is every chance that Through the wall of death will go on the block. We need the people who run our public institutions to step forward on this one, they are the people we entrust to “conserve, preserve and protect” our culture.

Now would be a good time for them to stand up and be counted, before the dollars are.

Image: The wall of death, one of the inspirations for Colin McCahon’s great religious painting.