Hawkes Bay Museum Theatre Gallery's $18 million extension has opened, in a prime position to show off its fine collection. Janet McAllister reports

Last Friday afternoon in Napier, the eyecatching daywear of Douglas Lloyd Jenkins - a check suit, lavender shirt and costume cameo brooch of an angel writing at a desk - merely foreshadowed more dizzying dress delights to come.

For the opening eve party of the Hawkes Bay's relaunched MTG (Museum Theatre Gallery) - the MTG director changed into a floral shirt and a black and white "Mister Hoolywood" [sic] suit by Japanese designer Daisuke Obana.

One might usually hesitate to highlight what someone is wearing when their achievement is an impressive three-year, $18 million extension of a cultural institution. Why talk of fashion frivolities when that's an impressive boost to serious art and history? (I can't remember anyone describing what then-director Chris Saines wore to the Auckland Art Gallery reopening.) But, for Lloyd Jenkins, clothing isn't just a bit of ruffly fluff and, as a design historian, he is keenly aware of the role fashion plays in how all creative endeavours are valued.

"We're obsessed with fashion and style - we take them seriously and give them depth," he says, speaking for the MTG team, which includes design collections curator Lucy Hammonds, who was one of his co-authors of the 2010 New Zealand fashion history, Dress Circle.


In fact, declares Lloyd Jenkins, MTG is "the fashionable museum of the unfashionable".

This means the MTG is positioning itself as a tastemaker, not a slavish trend follower. Today's outmoded is tomorrow's hot; passe now will become the new black.

"A new style is going to be something that someone has rediscovered, not something new," says Lloyd Jenkins. And the "someone" might rediscover it at the MTG. Lloyd Jenkins wears this philosophy on his sleeve: his peeling counter-trend cameo looked great against his purple/black checks.

The fashionable/unfashionable approach is savvy, allowing the curatorial team to play to the strengths of the MTG collection - such as decorative arts - whether or not those strengths are appreciated elsewhere.

It's also a bold, self-backing approach - it relies on the museum's ability to present objects in ways that make visitors see the under-valued in a new light, and - a related point - it relies on institutional cachet. Being original is one thing; convincing people you know what you're doing is quite another.

Hawkes Bay has every reason to feel confident its cultural flagship will sail the unpredictable waters of kudos with ease, in spite of the Titanic-shaped bouncy boat the kids were sliding down at the MTG's opening carnival.

First, there is the new building wing. Architect Richard Daniels, of Opus International Consultants, whose profile has been low in the celebratory MTG ballyhoo - has created a tasteful structure, approachable and gracious. It responds neatly to the "Art Deco but not Art Deco" brief.

The building is complementary to its milieu without playing 1930s' party dress-up. A few slightly daring ship-funnel cylinders add interest on the Marine Parade side and ensure the building is also sympathetic to its seaside location.


Second, there is Lloyd Jenkins, who joined MTG's precursor in 2006. With his profile, respected expertise and charming flair, DL Cool J adds to MTG's national prestige. He says he's in no hurry to move: "I've got the collection to play with now!"

When he talks of the gallery, he talks of "we", as in "we bought the chandelier in the 1940s".

Third, there is the collection. MTG will put on 11 shows a year, most of them self-generated.

The opening shows have been carefully chosen to present the collection in the best light possible. For example, the gallery does not own a Milan Mrkusich painting - abstracts have not been a collection focus - but the Architecture of the Heart show is a good excuse to display its rare 1950s' Mrkusich dining table.

Lloyd Jenkins was "a bit afraid of the show being too polite and middle class" but a few touches, like the legendary and creepy 1989 Alison Maclean short The Kitchen Sink, fixed that.

The show also includes an important work by Tony Fomison, Omai, a portrait of a Tahitian taken to Europe in 1774. Another large work, Te Whenua Te Whenua, Engari Kaore, He Turangawaewae by Robyn Kahukiwa, connects with Ukaipo - o tatou whakapapa, the taonga Maori exhibition downstairs, about home and upbringing.


Further down, in the industrial basement, is the new 1931 earthquake show ("Compulsory," sighs Lloyd Jenkins, "and even though the earthquake happened at 11am on a sunny day, people like it to be dark") and a ceramics show which includes a successful interactive infotainment called Throw Your Own. Your virtual pottery product is displayed on a public screen and you can even email it to yourself.

Behind the boutique 1970s' theatre and its "retroed up" brown foyer is a smaller, denser exhibition of historical artefacts designed particularly for locals to keep coming back to. But the $15 adult ticket price, although good value for tourists, seems steep for return visits. It is mitigated by an excellent $45 yearly subscription, but a chunk of Hawkes Bay's population will miss out completely.

In the oldest building, at the back, the MTG's most important international piece - El Greco's The Bather - is given room to pose. Facing away from the unseen beach and Pania across the road, she welcomes researchers to the reading room, where they can type sitting in elegant William IV (1830s) chairs. These add to the "truly immersive scholarly" environment of which Lloyd Jenkins is most proud. Yet they cost less than new office chairs. They're unfashionable, you see. Gloriously so.