Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Spinal tap

News this week that the director and senior team at the Auckland Art Gallery are to be disestablished (read biffed) and must apply for new jobs in a more 'commercially focused' organisation.

This move has been very sudden (staff at the gallery were as surprised as everyone else) but just what 'more commercially focused' means has yet to be elaborated. It’s not hard to guess though. More events, more sponsorship, more people through the door, more tourists, more retail.

Under the new Auckland Super City structure the Auckland Art Gallery is the responsibility of Robert Domm, now chief executive of Regional Facilities Auckland. His portfolio is event-centric: Vector Arena, Town Hall, Aotea Centre, Mt Smart Stadium, Convention Centres and Western Springs. The Gallery’s closest cousin in the mix is the Auckland Zoo. But hang on, the AAG is an art museum, not an event centre. If that's not what Auckland wants that's certainly a discussion but the Auckland Art Gallery is of importance to the whole country and what it becomes needs to be through open debate, not strangulation by endless cut backs and reorganisations.

Ironically this is all happened at the same time as the exhibition Made Active drawn from the Chartwell Collection opened at the Gallery. It was after all a similar facilities-based ‘correction’ by the Hamilton City Council that saw Chartwell leave that city and end up in Auckland in 1997.

Piling on the ironies, we should mention that the annual Museums Aotearoa conference starts tomorrow in Wellington. Seldom has a professional gathering been better timed than this one.

The New Zealand art museum world is small and the knock-on effects of change to the ‘commercial’ can be huge. Politicians and senior bureaucrats keep a close eye on what other local bodies are doing. When the direction of a major gallery is changed abruptly without opposition it quickly becomes oh-let’s-do-that in other centres.

So events in Auckland will certainly send a chill through the Museums Conference but if they are going to change anything they will need to do more than just shiver.

Hamish Keith on Twitter 18 April