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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Out of Site: Curation as Democracy in the Summer of Art

The day was already hot. In the garden behind Auckland Art Gallery the pōhutukawa trees had taken a turn for the worse. Their red needles and spotted leaves were slipping together on the ground as I stepped off the path and took a shortcut to the back entrance of the building. The grass had been trodden into dust. It was Wednesday, my first day, because I missed the first two: excuses about moving house, needing to tidy things off at work, the guilt of quitting my steady job at Treasury just before Christmas. To do what? A curating course? To become a writer? Art?


For a month, commencing the last week of January 2017 in steamy Auckland and ending in Wellington during The-Worst-Summer-Ever, the Adam Art Gallery held its inaugural Summer Intensive: Researching, Writing, Curating. 15 newly minted students gave over their best days of summer to those three pursuits.

Despite the sunshine and pōhutukawa, the four-week course was no walk in the park, no summer fling with art. The course reader, at some 200 pages, resembled an honours level reading pack, and we began each day with discussions, either alone as a class or with visiting curators and academics, on topics as widely varied as the artist as activist, the decolonisation of institutions, and the ever optimistic selfie. In the afternoons, our tireless leader Christina Barton, Director of the Adam, took us to visit art in situ on harbour islands, in suburban living rooms, and on the walls of converted bank vaults.

For two weeks in Auckland (we met seven hours a day, five days a week — an intensive, indeed) we walked, sweated, and bonded as a team, stretching our capacities for critical thought and pursuing the craft of a good sentence.

It wasn’t until the third week when we were in Wellington, and had sourced several extra layers of clothing, that the final learning objective and real subject of this essay took place: curating. Now in the seat of power, both of the New Zealand Government and more importantly the Adam Art Gallery, we were able to take our learnings from our regional (Auckland) tour and apply them to our ultimate task, our pièce de (curatorial) résistance. Which, with a drum roll please, was the real-life real-time curation of the Kirk Gallery for the Adam Art Gallery’s first exhibition of 2017 — Out of Site: Works from the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection.

Sixty artworks that had been removed for seismic activity reasons from their homes in the Pipitea Campus, were out of site, and ready to be curated. As we were limited to the three and a half walls of the Kirk Gallery, we were sensibly divided into three groups of five and given half a day to formulate a pitch as to how the space should be curated.

The art works were all of the sort that could be hung on a wall. That is to say: the law and commerce schools at the Pipitea Campus favoured painting and photography over sculpture or video. The gallery staff had propped the works up around the perimeter of the space to give us an idea of what we were working with, though they were layered atop one another, creating the kind of tableau you might find if you were helping a barrister move offices circa 1997. In every direction there were green and red hills, gold skies, blue harbours, and rolling amber wheat fields. Intermittently a face or a body, sometimes recognisable, often not, popped out from behind a landscape. At one point my group threw their hands in the air and said: “let’s just leave the art works where they are and call it: Pipitea A Work in Progress.” It did have a good ring to it.

And this is where my somewhat tenuous “curation as democracy” metaphor really takes flight. Following our internal group discussions, it was time to present our ideas, our policies if you will, of how to best use the resources available. Unlike a true democracy, however, there was no vote from the populace. Rather, we had a Panel of Experts, the Adam’s Director, Curator, and Collection Manager, who ultimately decided that all parties should be represented in the exhibition. No one should be left out of site. Like a good MMP coalition, each group was given the opportunity to bring their policies to fruition on separate walls in the Kirk Gallery.

The art works my group chose were Gavin Hurley’s Charles Heaphy VC (2009), Richard Killeen’s Dead Woman (1969), and Janice Gill’s Not an atom of difference (1981). Together, we named this selection Two Dead Men, One Dead Woman. Our pitch was certainly political in nature: the paintings demonstrate the differences in the way men and women, historically, have been represented and immortalised. Charles Heaphy is there — clear, flat, and easy for everyone to see and remember. Gill’s painting depicts a monument to physicist Ernest Rutherford, front and centre, while in the background a woman is hanging washing, domestic and unnamed (the title of the work is certainly an ironic suggestion). Killeen’s piece says it all: a dead woman is surrounded by ignoring onlookers.

Throughout the four-week intensive we returned time and again to the discussion of the role of artists and curators as political commentators and activists. Our final selection for Out of Site was a timely reminder that gender discrepancies continue to exist in our society, and while we may often feel we are taking two steps forward, unfortunately we continue to take steps back. In this climate of political fragility,  I suggest that it is to artists, not politicians, that we should turn to hear brave discussions and creative solutions for many social issues. When the pōhutukawa blooms this year, I will be walking under it, forward forward, a richer person, not because of any job, but because of art and all the conversations it has sparked.


Keep an eye on and for similar short courses and learning opportunities.


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