Obituary: Museum master led charge for nation's arts

Art historian's work helped NZ's cultural life flourish

Obituary: Thomas Lance Rodney Wilson 1945-2013

Dr Rodney Wilson, a former director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, died peacefully at home on Saturday.

Dr Rodney Wilson was a museum leader and art historian whose work over four decades influenced the cultural life of the country. He brought vitality, vision, flair and enthusiasm to his many undertakings.

Always smartly turned out, often sporting a bow tie, he commanded attention at the boardroom table or with a group of children on the museum floor. He was also outspoken and possessed a stubborn determination to carry through to completion whatever task he tackled.

The son of a plumber who had experienced hard times in the Great Depression, Rodney Wilson absorbed lessons of hard work, thoroughness and the value of well-used time from his father. The son inherited the father's ferocious work ethic. He took pleasure in whatever he did, once memorably remarking: "Find something you love to do in life and you'll never have to go to work."

Christchurch-born Thomas Lance Rodney Wilson was educated at St Andrews College, the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands. At art school he joined a brilliant group of students who included some who would become nationally respected artists - Dick Frizzell, Neil Dawson, Barry Cleavin, Roy Good, John Parker, Philip Trusttum and Maria Ohlson.

Among such talent, Wilson, never given to self-delusion, pragmatically decided that teaching might better match his abilities.

While attending the Auckland Teachers' College, he formed a close friendship with his art education lecturer, the late Peter Smith, who influenced his views on education. He shared with Smith a love of sailing.

One Friday evening, while idly browsing the Technical Book Shop, he picked up Frederick van der Meer's Atlas of Western Civilisation. The volume's sweep of cultural history captured his imagination, shifting his view of art history to a broader, more inclusive cultural context. He began to consider museum work as a place to make a career.

At this time he met a young woman visiting from the Netherlands, Hilly De Yonge. They married within a year, then set out to explore the art treasures of Europe. He became fluent in Dutch and, determined to advance his art history qualifications, enrolled in his intellectual idol van der Meer's curatorial course at Nijmegen University.

Returning to Christchurch, Wilson lectured in art history at his old art school. His doctoral thesis on Dutch immigrant artist Petrus van der Velden was published as a two-volume catalogue raisonne in 1980.

With growing impatience, he fixed his curator's eye on the Robert McDougall Art Gallery's activities, finding its programmes lacklustre. When the directorship of the city's public art gallery fell vacant, he applied and was appointed.

He set about creating a fully professional, if minimal, staff - a full-time curator, a technician, an exhibitions manager and curator of education.

His forceful determination surfaced when he tried to call for the New Zealand Army to transport an exhibition strike-bound in the North Island. The city manager pointed out that it was the prerogative of Parliament to call out the army, not that of art gallery directors.

After barely two years at the McDougall gallery, including a stint at Nijmegen to finish his doctorate, Wilson was head-hunted by the Auckland Art Gallery. He then undertook a revitalisation of the gallery and expanded its exhibition spaces, a four-year task during which the gallery remained open.

He sourced "blockbuster" exhibitions from abroad and presented them in partnership with other metropolitan galleries. Sharing the high costs of the shows between gallery partners spread the expenses and earned profits for each venue, while boosting attendances.

During Wilson's administration, the Auckland Art Gallery was responsible for the preparation of the Te Maori exhibition for its extraordinarily successful tour of the United States, and its homecoming presentations in the main centres. Much later, Wilson recalled the Te Maori show "was an amazingly vivid time with sublime, wonderful experiences and some shockingly bad behaviour. Everyone involved knew they were making history - changing the cultural politics of New Zealand."

When the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne needed a replacement for departing director Patrick McCaughey, Wilson was approached to fill the post. In Melbourne, he enjoyed the support of the gallery's board but fell out with the Premier's office. Just as he was contemplating sinking into a tame administrative role, a call from Auckland brought a chance of heading the National Maritime Museum on the city's waterfront. The yachting enthusiast in him was excited by the challenge. Trouble was, there was a plan and an organisation but few exhibits and no museum. The project had stalled.

After taking charge, Wilson wangled a $1 million loan from the former Auckland City Council, using the interest to get the project moving.

He began to attract donors, volunteers, sponsors, fundraisers and wide support among the city's yachties. Back among contacts who trusted his capabilities, he worked indefatigably and often slept aboard his own vessel moored near the project. The museum opened in 1993, in time for the America's Cup Regatta.

When he was invited to take charge of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, he reviewed the museum's 150-year history and decided that its development should follow the path of the great classical institutions. He disdained the concept of a post-modernist museum that he saw in Te Papa, courting opposition from some museum professionals.

In a 12-year timeframe he presided over two stages of the museum's extensive $113 million makeover. Underground carparking was created, display spaces reorganised, a courtyard enclosed, a second entry made, and a soaring atrium constructed in a conical form in which staff offices were situated. As with the Auckland Art Gallery, the museum never closed its doors throughout construction.

When he retired in 2007 the museum was enjoying a record attendance rate, justifying Wilson's belief that first-rate facilities and ideas-rich programmes, allied with story-saturated collections, drove successful museums.

After leaving the position, he established a museum consultancy company called Rodney Wilson Associates. He was kept busy advising museum managements contemplating change. In 2007 he was appointed Companion of the Order of New Zealand and honoured by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand for his contribution to the country's cultural life.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010, he and second wife Maureen decided to plan and enjoy each day they had together. Wilson returned to painting, holding an exhibition titled In Mo's Kitchen at The Depot Artspace in Devonport last year.

His pleasure in the world, family, friends and projects continued until his death on April 27 at his Auckland home.

John Coley is an artist, art writer and former director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch.

- NZ Herald

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