A week ahead of Auckland Art Gallery’s first formal presence at the Venice Biennale, Rhana Devenport talks with Kim Knight about funding and — after some persuasion — frocks.

She was the woman in the front row offering the very famous artist a tissue.

Martin Creed was bleeding from the mouth (harmonica injury) and Rhana Devenport was looking for a solution. Earlier, she had introduced him. One long person greeting another long person. They reminded me of a Japanese crane painting.

"We're in for a treat," Devenport told the Auckland audience. Creed was the Turner Prize-winning artist who had, she said, "cut an extraordinary path through the arts with his non-conformist approach".

I see her again, months later, at an Auckland Art Gallery Foundation fundraiser. She is drawing faux arched eyebrows on her husband (the dress code is Formal Dada) and later, tells the $275-a-head crowd, that an art gallery is "a safe place for unsafe ideas".


That night, patrons dig deep.

More than $100,000 is donated. The gallery will get its site-specific Judy Millar installation.

What is art for? Devenport borrows a quote from German psycholinguist and sound artist Florian Hecker: "Ideally, producing intensities."

Devenport is one of those people you are compelled to look at sideways in case she catches you staring. Present and presence. The cool, calm, centre of the room, wearing second-hand Issey Miyake and, in her fourth year as director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, talking as tough as a civic servant job description allows.

Bluntly: she wants more money.

Devenport came to Auckland from Taranaki's Govett Brewster, where she led the Len Lye Centre redevelopment. She was duly profiled by local media: A 52-year-old Australian with no children, married to multi-media artist Tim Gruchy and a resumé that included a decade-long stint as senior project officer with the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Her very long hair was noted, as was her $195,000 salary, her clothes by Zambesi and her description of her new role - big and important.

Today, she is responsible for 16,000 artworks. Her performance targets require the gallery to attract at least 450,000 visitors a year, of whom 90 per cent must be satisfied with their experience. The gallery must undertake at least 10 Maori collaborations annually; it must deliver educative and public programmes to a minimum of 40,000 participants. It is, indeed, a big and important job.

But at this precise moment, assuming everything has gone to plan, Devenport is in Italy, preparing for the May 13 opening of Lisa Reihana: Emissaries. It will be New Zealand's eighth stint at the Venice Biennale, the international exhibition sometimes described as the "Olympics of the art world".

"I think everybody wants to do Venice," says Devenport. She is curating Reihana's show, which builds on the enormous digital work, In Pursuit of Venus [infected] first mounted at Auckland Art Gallery in 2015. Based on an 1804 French wallpaper panel inspired by Pacific voyages undertaken by Captain James Cook and others, it is a panoramic video with animated imaginings of Cook's encounters. In Venice, it will be supplemented with new photographs and sculpture.

Devenport correlates that exploration - and colonisation - with contemporary times.

"We've never seen such a mass movement of peoples around the world," says Devenport. "Whether it be through choice, or economic refugees, or environmental refugees or political refugees ..."

Eleven curator/artist teams applied to represent New Zealand at the Biennale. Auckland Art Gallery has never formally attended. "It's unusual that we haven't," says Devenport the diplomat. "It was Lisa's time. I think she is extraordinary."

Emissaries shows until November 26. But just two days after its frocked and fabulous Vernissage opening, Devenport will fly home. She has an art gallery to run.

In her book-lined office on the ground floor of the building that reopened in 2011 after a $121 million refurbishment, Devenport says: "The gallery's budget is certainly constrained and we are under great pressure."

Local government support, through Regional Facilities Auckland, has decreased by "a couple of million" since re-opening, she says.

"Motat's budget is twice our net operating budget and the Auckland War Memorial Museum's is around four times our size. The economic impact of the gallery to Auckland in 2014-15 was $70 million - that's a return of $10 for every $1 the city invests in us. Now that is good value for money."

She is taking a "highly proactive approach" to corporate sponsorship and cultural grants. Gallery membership has increased to 2000 people, and the Foundation, whose last big job was fundraising for the gallery's rebuild project, has been re-purposed. Devenport says she needs money to attract the kinds of shows that get numbers through the door (a la Melbourne's Bowie exhibition) - and to stem the flow of gallery staff who are leaving to work for other institutions.

"Very specifically, Te Papa and the Auckland Museum. Te Papa has stolen two of my best ... well, it's offering them a lot more, so it's not stealing, it's luring, and we just can't afford to keep them. And you can't blame them. For a lot of young people, the housing crisis has meant Auckland is really impossible for them."

Her wish list includes tax incentives for art donations and recognition of the gallery's role in generating tourism dollars. In Australia, she says, if you gifted a $1m painting, you'd get 30 per cent of its value off your tax bill the following year.

"Australia has a tax relief system that has radically increased the number of donations of artworks to art museums. It has completely changed how collections are expanding in Australia - and New Zealand does not have that.

"Many countries have this and it has made a massive difference. I've been lobbying quite hard at the central government level."

She points again to 2014/15, the year of the blockbuster, multi-sensory Light Show. This year, thanks to a record-breaking Gottfried Lindauer exhibition and the current Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from the Tate, an exhibition of nudes by big names (Rodin, Sherman, Picasso, Bourgeois and more) visitor numbers are again expected to top half a million - and many of them will have come from outside Auckland. "And we don't receive any significant support from tourism agencies. Many tourism agencies here really only see sports events or festivals as events. But an exhibition that is on for four months is an event. With Light Show, it just meant there were 72,000 visitors over a three-month period, not overnight."

Odds on her effecting change?

"I'm persistent, and the conversations are being had, and I think in both situations it will happen, but maybe not too soon. I don't know."

Devenport used to be a working artist. Her husband, Gruchy, bought one of her paintings before he became her husband. She taught art and theatre. Her father was a painter and an architect.

"I can draw," she says. "So, you know, painting, drawing, ceramics. I love ceramics. When I retire I'm going to take up ceramics again. That'll never happen! And photography, I still take a lot of photographs.

"But I made a decision pretty early on that I was more excited about the entrepreneurial nature of creating situations, of making connections between people and art, rather than actually making the art myself."

Altruist or control freak?

"Oh," she says, "Probably both."

Biggest lesson: "You need to be absolutely fascinated by your audience. If you're not fascinated by your audience, in a museum, things will fall down. If you're connecting with your audience and you're offering them new experiences, it's untold what might happen."

Because when your art gallery is serving a super city that is 110km wide and is situated in the middle of a central business district where it is impossible to find a park (if you can even be bothered to drive there in the first place) it is not a given that people will visit.

Those who do must be rewarded. In 1888, when Auckland Art Gallery opened, it's doubtful anyone imagined huge audience attendance at a show called The Story of Rama: Indian Miniatures from the National Museum, New Delhi. Or Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Act of Participation in which a Taiwanese artist took in people's mending and facilitated non-intimate gallery sleepovers between strangers. But it is also doubtful that Auckland's erstwhile fathers imagined a city that would, one day, become more culturally diverse than London or New York.

"Obviously the gallery is fabulous and has the most amazing collection, which really attracted me - but also, Auckland's diversity. Auckland is a major Asia-Pacific city," says Devenport.

"There is a lot of discussion now about cultural value, rather than value for money. There's a lot of new research about museums as spaces of social connectivity ... we have a very high proportion, much higher than other museums, of people who come here for social purposes. They know they can come here as a single person, meet someone - or not - and feel connected to society."

One of her favourite recent outreach projects was a scheme that involved taking a group of refugee women on to a marae and, later, to the gallery to see The Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand.

"These were paintings with textiles and jewellery and facial tattoos and they were tribal.

A number of the women said that they felt like they were in New Zealand for the first time. For that group to come to the gallery ... because it's not as if we're expecting everyone to come to us. Why should they? What usefulness have we to people? These are the questions we have to ask. How can we be useful, and why should people bother?"

Devenport lives smack in the middle of her new city. She doesn't own a car. The day job is also a night job. She attends dealer gallery openings and patron events, most recently, she led an exclusive art and architecture tour through Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, with priority bookings for the gallery's Foundation members - because money, money, money. Devenport puts it more politely:

"There were certainly people there who already had contributed significantly to us, and there are people who are now part of our family, because in a modern world, across the globe, public funding is of course, more and more challenging for any social and cultural endeavour."

She has always been interested in Asia - witness her fabulous wardrobe. Here, actually, she demurs slightly: "I just like frocks!" and "I think fashion's great - it's a hobby."

Later however, via email, she proffers a quote from Korean artist Do Ho Suh.

"He makes exquisite three-dimensional architectural spaces from coloured fabric that are meditations on the idea of home. He has said, 'I see clothing as the smallest and most habitable space that you can carry with you. Architectural space is similar, it's just a little bigger. They both protect you'."

Her first trip overseas, aged 20, was to Japan. She remembers, as a child, seeing an exhibition of traditional Chinese ink painting, "which was so far from anything in Brisbane".

So, Asia, she says, for "the aesthetics of it all", but also, "I don't know - I'm interested to be out of my comfort zone, not in it."

Devenport describes art as a portal, "to empathy and other worlds and other cultures".

It moves people. She cried when she saw Picasso's Guernica mural.

"It was just much bigger than I expected. The monochrome nature of it really shocked me. It was so radical, and it was just about to go back to Spain. You stand in front of the work and even at the time, you don't know whether it's the fact that you've seen it reproduced so often, and have studied it like a girly-swot at high school ... I just think certain works have enormous power, and art goes beyond words."

The other day, Devenport read that, every day, 1.8 billion images are uploaded to social media. "How many of them could be considered art? Probably quite a few. And these are people who may never have even thought about art-making, or aesthetics, or communicating in visual ways, but this is all part of the conversation about visual imagery in a contemporary world.

"You could say this is a crisis for art. But you could also say it's a really marvellous challenge to be thinking about all of this."

Devenport picks the latter.

"My wedding dress is by Akira Isogawa, a marvellous Japanese-born Sydney designer who incorporates exquisite traditional embroidery (nihon shishu) techniques that date from the fourth century. Akira designs for dance and theatre and brings a magic to textures. My husband Tim proposed in Istanbul and I instantly imagined a red Akira. I adapted it, of course, which was cheeky.

"The green coat-vest [far right] is by Stokx from Berlin (Lindy Stokes is a pal from Brisbane days), which uses utilitarian aesthetics and ultra-tough, hose-able cotton fabrics - very serviceable, with mega pockets."

On the cover

"The jacket is a pre-loved Issey Miyake I bought at Scotties nearly 20 years ago when I was visiting my colleague Chris Saines, who had just started his directorship at the Auckland Art Gallery. The brooch is Warwick Freeman, the silk shirt is Alastair Trung (a talented and fascinating Vietnamese-born Sydney designer), and the trousers are Homme Plisse (Miyake's men's range)."


The ram-raid theft of two Gottfried Lindauer paintings from the International Art Centre in Parnell last month, valued at between $350,000 and $450,000 (Auckland Art Gallery's annual acquisition budget is $300,000):

"I think it's horrific. I think the violence of it has really shocked us. Those works, I'm sure, are damaged. Their surfaces are very fragile. And with all that shattered glass ... these are tupuna, the living embodiment of ancestors and they need to be respected and treated with great care."

Protests against the privately funded $1.5m Michael Parekowhai public sculpture, The Lighthouse:
"Look, there's something about public art. It's much more open to opinions and there's nothing wrong with that. Public art should be the topic of public discussion. It's been talked about, and that's a great thing, and if brings attention to the housing crisis, that's a good thing. I think it's a beautiful work. It's quite a magical work."

New Zealand's $700,000 presence at the 2017 Venice Biennale:
"It's gone through the time when people have been very critical about it and now it's come through the other side and now the community is very excited and EVERYBODY'S going to be there. I applaud Creative New Zealand. We're a small country and we don't have much money, but it's dedicated itself to this since 2001, and the Biennale office see us extremely favourably because of the quality of the presentations, the quality of the artists and the consistency."