Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bang or whimper?

If there is one thing that talks in a recession it's cash, and it never talks louder than to cash-strapped local bodies. When the Len Lye Foundation got people to pony up $8 million for a new Len Lye Centre, the decision to proceed came with its own built-in steamroller. And, as they say in the business world, if you're not part of the steamroller you’re part of the road. 

That’s pretty much how members of the Govett-Brewster Foundation must be feeling. Tasked with fund raising and cheerleading for the Govett-Brewster itself (i.e. as distinct from the Len Lye Foundation), they fronted up to a meeting in December to deal with a fait accompli. Their discussion of the plan for a new Len Lye Centre as part of the Govett-Brewster was over-shadowed by the City Council's solid backing for the Centre and very successful fundraising. 

The plan confronts the GB Foundation and the Gallery's supporters with serious questions. Why pull down the existing black box gallery and theatre built in 1997 and replace it (plus some workspace and another gallery) with another bigger black box gallery and theatre? The idea of the Lye Centre as a separate entity on a separate site has been lost in the rush to fundraise. 

Clearly the new building with its Gehry-like folded stainless steel façade will all but swamp the physical identity of the current Govett-Brewster and this has been exacerbated by the total focus on building a new Len Lye Centre rather than presenting it as an expansion of the Govett-Brewster. All this will obviously have a big impact on how the Govett-Brewster is perceived locally and nationally. Remember the V&A's notorious 1980s advertising slogan: "An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached"? It’s not hard to work out who the quite nice museum is in the New Plymouth mix. And the shiny Len Lye Centre façade that covers a good deal more than 50 percent of the final exterior footprint isn’t the most subtle way of giving the finger to supporters of the Govett-Brewster as the key cultural player in NP and NZ. At the very least the project needs rebranding, how about the new building being renamed The Govett-Brewster, home of the Len Lye Centre?

The reality is that Lye has turned out to be a money magnet. The numbers:

2006: $250,000 (estimate) The site on the corner of Queen and Devon streets is acquired by NPDC.

2008: $2 million from Lottery Grants Board’s Environment and Heritage Committee for new Len Lye artworks

2008: $1 million from TSB Community Trust

2011: $4 million from the Government’s Regional Museums Policy for Capital Construction Costs

2011: $500,000 from Lottery Grants Board’s Environment and Heritage Committee 

2011: $2.5 million pledge from Todd Energy

2011: $500,000 pledge over five years for an innovative education programme from Todd Energy

2011: $65,000 from the New Plymouth City Council for opening exhibitions

Given that level of funding attracted by the Len Lye brand (just north of $10 million) it is going to take some serious metaphors and some fast talking to guarantee the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery brand retains its place in the sun.