Hamish Keith: Gallery a marvel we can all be proud of

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The new Auckland Art Gallery has a capacity twice that of the old with nearly all the most memorable treasures again  on display. Photo / Supplied
The new Auckland Art Gallery has a capacity twice that of the old with nearly all the most memorable treasures again on display. Photo / Supplied

Hamish Keith tours the new Auckland Art Gallery, a space he has known most of his life

Along with grand spaces which provide for great gestures, there are those which allow for intimacy. The new Auckland Art Gallery has a capacity twice that of the old with nearly all the most memorable treasures again on display.

If there is any single moment in the newly remade Auckland Art Gallery which defines the whole, it is certainly the small exhibition, Sacred Conversations, on Level 1. There, four New Zealand painters have a chat with a bunch of their 16th and 17th-century European equivalents. Colin McCahon and Tony Fomison fret the narrative while Gretchen Albrecht and Stephen Bambury quiz the aesthetic that underpins the spiritual in painting.

It is the kind of creative indulgence that a gallery or art museum short on space and confidence could not attempt. The new Auckland Art Gallery is rich in both.

It has a capacity twice that of the old and a range of exhibition spaces unimaginable by comparison. Like a grown-up gallery, you can get happily lost in it.

The director of the Christchurch Art Gallery, Jenny Harper, recently summed up what art galleries are for and how they work.

"They have to have confidence in their collections, confidence in their public and create a conversation between the two."

She added that they should create a conversation among their collections too, which Sacred Conversations and the whole rehang so splendidly does.

They are conversations that have some depth and those in this gallery will go on for a long time for visitors who choose to have them. The success of galleries is measured not by the heads counted once, but by those who make the collections a valued part of their life. I have no doubt that this reborn gallery will inspire generations to do just that.

I have known this gallery and its collections all of my adult life. As I walked through its halls, I would ping off old friends that were on the walls and old friends that were not. Too often the absentees were in the majority. There were some works I hardly expected to see again - some of those to be honest I did not miss much, but others I longed to see. Now that ratio has turned.

Nearly all the gallery's most memorable treasures are again on display - some still make me grumpy, in an amiable way, of course - but there are those that lift my heart as they always did. Still not enough of them, I am sorry to say, from the thousands of treasures which are works on paper, but there is now a greater capacity for them to eventually have their turn. At least more are on the walls now and a new print room provides an access to them that was never possible before.

One of the marvellous things the new gallery provides is the capacity to surprise. Along with grand spaces which provide for great gestures, there are those which allow for intimacy. It is possible to spaciously wallow in the grandiloquence of Victorian history painters and the myth-making sentimentality of the Pre-Raphaelites, or have a close up encounter with a pious painter of Madonnas and martyrs.

You can contemplate a historic mob baying for blood or mourning a dead child, or reflect on how marvellously nutty were the British Romantics or obsessed with detail were the painters of Grand Tour landscapes or fascinating foreign ruins.

But best of all we can celebrate just how far our own cultures have come and in what a short span of time, by comparison, we have been able to make something singular of ourselves. Here I have a gripe - two in fact. The New Zealand collection in the old library space is the most uncomfortable hang in the whole gallery. It is a brilliant selection, but the works are hung way too high for their domestic scale. The hanging of this gallery needs a serious rethink.

The second gripe is historical. European art and its history is served well. Maori art is not. In the 19th century, in response to new technologies, it flourished. There is none of it here. Contemporary Pakeha artists can chat with their ancestors. Contemporary Maori cannot. That is not the result of mischief or prejudice, but an omission carried on from the narrower cultural views of the past - Maori art belonged in museums and the European equivalent in art galleries. That was a cultural injustice which we should correct.

Enough raining on this picnic. Time for another round of applause. The new gallery and its collections are a splendid monument to the generosity of individuals.

Take away what has been gifted and these collections would look thin indeed. Sir George Grey, James Tannock Mackelvie and all those generous individuals, who have made Auckland's collection the best in the country, are appropriately commemorated here.

To remind us that such great cultural deeds continue is the promised gift of Julian and Josie Robertson. Fifteen small and mostly perfectly formed works by modern European masters. Fanciful perhaps, but when I encountered these it seemed some essential grace notes which had long been missing were now enriching a very fine tune.

This is a gallery and a collection of which we can be genuinely proud. Time for a bit of civic courage to complete the picture and bravely rethink Khartoum Place.

- NZ Herald

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