Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Parochial ugliness hounds out a breath of fresh air

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Vanda Vitali held her head high amid a vicious whispering campaign. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Vanda Vitali held her head high amid a vicious whispering campaign. Photo / Brett Phibbs

What is it about this country that we must destroy the spirit of someone with a sense of style, who dares bring about change to our institutional way of life?

I've never met Vanda Vitali, troubled chief executive and director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, but I'm appalled at the way she has been treated by the museum board and the staff now she has resigned.

Worse, it seems from the vicious blogs being written, is that she refused to quit in a cowering, quivering heap.

This woman has brio, and that's a crime. She tried to bring some of that chic to the workplace, apparently, by discouraging staff from wearing crocs, eating their lunch in the public cafe, and entering and leaving through the main doors.

But why should staff defer to the paying public? Why give visitors the courtesy of dressing smartly, ensuring plenty of tables are free for customers at lunchtime, making visitors feel special as they sweep through the grand entrance of this wonderful building?

Jack's as good as his master in Godzone, and no Canadian's going to tell us otherwise.

In Vitali's own words, her directorship has been "controversial".

She was handed a hospital pass, despite the fact that her predecessor, Rodney Wilson, did a fair enough job. Times were changing and this institution was always heading for tension. The very name suggests there will be a clash of - ahem - cultures when someone is employed to drag the place out of traditional war museum mediocrity and make it a more vibrant place.

Nobody likes change, least of all a highly unionised staff. The art world is no different. Go to a gallery opening and it's all air-kissing, dahling, and soopah, but those knives are sharp when the sheaths come off.

From all accounts Vitali, too, was sharp. Her mandate from the museum board of trustees was to make a difference. Some staff were lazy, and needed jettisoning. Welcome to the real world.

I've worked for editors who've had me howling when I couldn't get my stories correct. I've rewritten 7000-word features four times, despairing I'd ever cut the mustard - but without that gruelling taskmaster I'd never have won so many journalism awards, negotiated better working conditions, chosen the job positions I wanted.

Who do these museum staff want when they go to work? Mummy?

Do these "current staff", who backstab but "wish to remain anonymous", realise we ratepayers are forking out for them to behave in such a despicable manner, white-anting their boss every day?

There's an unwritten moral code they've never heard of, and it has a lot to do with loyalty. If you accept the money from an institution, a company, or an individual, then you owe that payer some loyalty. If you don't like it, you leave.

But now, no longer content with just having Vitali leave the museum, we must hound her out of the country.

We get hysterical that a tiny part of the land being opened up for mining might destroy the entire tourism industry, yet we completely ignore what our treatment of this highly respected international art professional might do to the country's reputation.

We were lucky to attract someone like this to our shores in the first place. Now, I suppose, in a xenophobic move, we'll only hire a New Zealander. Who would want to work here anyway?

While Vitali continued to do her job in stressful circumstances - recalcitrant staff, vindictive blogs, whispering campaigns - she held her head high. We should salute that.

But the staff who plan to hold a wicked witch Wizard of Oz "Ding Dong" party, with a picture of a witch crushed by a house, should be named, shamed and fired for their sexist, brutish behaviour.

This ugly incident reinforces how cruel and horrible New Zealanders can be to foreigners. Vitali, fortunately but probably too late, does have some good supporters, people who have been wealthy benefactors of the Museum, and also of the staff.

Vitali might be tough, but she's a human being and was guest in our country. Where is our heart?

- Herald on Sunday

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