I felt a real sense of personal and professional pleasure and pride at the opening of Brought to Light. And certainly, it is wonderful now to be able to walk through such refreshed and refined-looking spaces for the display of our collections. They are now in what I think may be the best spaces in the gallery – at once elegant and spacious, feeling larger and more rational. And it’s wonderful to share our work and thinking with the public, with feedback to date being overwhelmingly positive.
The opening event on 27 November was a shared end-of-year function for the Friends of Christchurch Art Gallery, with about 520 guests here to celebrate and have a first view. The formal part culminated in the presentation of a cheque for $40,000 from our Friends to the Christchurch Art Gallery Trust. This will enable the purchase of a 2009 painting by Seraphine Pick, Hole in the sky, included in our recent survey exhibition which opens at City Gallery Wellington next year for the International Festival of the Arts (and thence to Dunedin Public Art Gallery). It is a marvellously generous gift, the result in turn of the generosity of all who support the annual art event.
The evening before had seen the Trust and Christchurch City Council sign an innovative Challenge Grant Agreement whereby donations made to the Trust for collection development are matched dollar-for-dollar by Council up to an annual value of about $200,000. This excellent initiative will assist us to buy more significant works for the collection. It is a fitting endorsement of our direction and of the great value we all place on the core business of building and preserving the collection, and providing access to it in varying ways.
I thank all who have contributed to re-thinking the display of the collection: curators, designers, educators, public programmes staff, conservators, all our technical and other support staff. It was fascinating to hear a wide range of the talks and exchanges scheduled during the opening weekend and to see so many of our volunteer guides and visitors there to pick up words of wisdom from artists Robin White, Fiona Pardington and John Reynolds and all the other experts we asked to respond to a part or section of the new display.
I am increasingly aware of the multiple ways in which collections may be displayed and it has been interesting also to see other collections recently re-hung (the Australian galleries in the Queensland Art Gallery during the opening of the APT in Brisbane; and on 11 December the new multi-hued collection rooms in Dunedin Public Art Gallery, opening on the occasion of its 125th anniversary). Ours stands up well and is exactly right for us now, but then (as I noted in a 2003 review of Christchurch Art Gallery when it had just opened): ‘…there is a positive and generative sense in which art galleries are always incomplete.’ (Journal of New Zealand Art History, vol 24, 2003, p 3).
Brought to Light is the end of a great deal of planning and extra effort for us, but also the beginning of the next phase in this Gallery’s contribution to the city and the fabric of art in Aotearoa New Zealand. The rewards which we especially value from now on are even stronger patterns of visitation and an increasing sense of engagement with the art on display.
Renowned New Zealand artist, Rita Angus, features in Brought to Light and is a favourite with curator Felicity Milburn
There are many reasons I return to Angus’s A goddess of mercy, but I think the strongest and simplest reason is the sense of connection between the sitter and the artist.
Rita painted the portrait in part as a tribute to her sister Edna, incorporating the pattern from one of Edna’s favourite housecoats into the floral print of the goddess’s skirt. She made it after the end of the Second World War, and it expresses her vision of a more peaceful future and her belief in the vital role women could play in averting war.
There’s a lot of art history in it – Angus is referring to the Western tradition of Madonna paintings – but the painting addresses the here and now.
Angus’s contemporary goddess watches over a beautiful, hopeful world, while the melting snow, ploughed fields and yellow crocus herald the arrival of spring and the possibility of new beginnings.
The painting is going to hang centrally on a wall of portraits of women by women from the collection. We think they’ll enjoy each other’s company.
For senior curator Justin Paton, John Reynolds’s Table of dynasties is a good place to end – or begin – your tour through Brought to Light.
It’s the result of John’s rummagings in a book called the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. But where dictionaries impose order on art, John cheerfully disorders it.
He’s taken hundreds of terms out of the dictionary and brought them back into the material world, spreading them in silver ink across more than 1,650 small paintings, from ‘abacus’ all the way through to ‘zeitgeist’.
They’re all stacked up on one long table – and by long, I mean enormous. The result is a kind of art historical jumble sale, a teetering heap of history and culture.
The work was inspired by tables stacked with products that Reynolds encountered on the streets of Hong Kong. And it’s a great work to see at the end of a big collection show, because it insists that art history isn’t a procession of masterpieces bolted to the walls forever. It’s up for grabs and up in the air.
A permanent work in progress.