Monday, March 08, 2010

Mind the gap

How do we tell if an artist is regarded as important to our culture? There are a number of rules of thumb to work with: appearing on the cover of Art New Zealand, winning the Walters prize, representing us at the Venice Biennale, having a major survey show at a public museum, getting serious CNZ grants and being well represented in the National Collection held by Te Papa.

Using these as a benchmark, you’d have to wonder what’s gone wrong with et al as they tick all these boxes save one. To date there is only one significant et al. work (Object: Misguided) in Te Papa’s collection. It was purchased ten years ago before et al won the Walters Prize or went to Venice and it has never been on display. It is included in Te Papa’s online catalogue, but is not illustrated unlike most other significant works.

There is a precedent for this blindspot. Colin McCahon was not included in the collection of the National Art Gallery until he was 50 and had to wait until he was 59 before a major work was purchased. Since then the National Collection has been playing an expensive game of catch-up buying works that could have been purchased for peanuts if the curators had shown better judgement. [Disclosure: we have personally benefited from this process.]

Auckland Art Gallery gets the significance of et al. It has four major installations representing most phases of the et al. group’s work along with seven other works and a good representation via the Chartwell Collection. And it was smart about McCahon too.

Te Papa seems to have a special problem with et al. Think about it. et al. is the only New Zealand representative at Venice not to have the Venice work shown in New Zealand by the organizing gallery (Te Papa’s contemporary curator at the time, Natasha Conland, curated the Venice show). This year we have Acting CEO Michelle Hippolite being ‘delighted to have supported the staging of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2009 and to be able to present Judy Millar and Francis Upritchard’s installations during the New Zealand International Arts Festival'. That support has also been expressed through the purchase of the Venice works of Fraser, Stevenson, Upritchard and Millar. No Peter Robinson purchase and, you guessed it, no etal.

et al.’s work is also missing from the major publication documenting Te Papa’s collection (the only Walters Prize winner not to be included, we assume because the registration department is still unable to supply a picture of the installation ten years after it entered the collection).

While et al. might not be easy for the general public to take, fear of public criticism is no reason to ignore work that has been acknowledged as important in every other art forum we have. Key members of the collective are approaching the age of sixty. Te Papa needs to take action and start building its et al. holdings as part of its mission to tell the stories of New Zealand.
Image: Object: Misguided 1999