Paul Johnston from Hamilton has been named as the recipient of the 2020 Liz Stringer Curatorial Internship at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata.
The internship provides the recipient with hands on curatorial skills across a wide range of activities at the gallery, which involves curating a show featuring works from the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata collection and assist with upcoming exhibitions while contributing new perspectives, connections and a fresh appreciation of portraiture.
New Zealand Portrait Gallery's director, Jaenine Parkinson, says Paul was selected because of his clear and erudite articulation of a strong, fresh concept to bring historical artefacts into dialogue with contemporary portraiture.
"We also saw great potential in Paul and think he has a stellar career in the museums and galleries sector ahead of him."
Reflecting on the achievement, Paul says: "I'm really excited to get some experience doing something new and interesting, learning how an exhibition is put together from the ground up. I know that I'm going to learn a whole lot. The chance to share my perspectives on art with a wider public is such an honour."
Paul was born and raised in Hamilton. After completing a master of arts (first class honours) in ancient history at Auckland University, he received a scholarship to study towards a PhD in classical philology at Harvard University.
"Harvard is a strange place. You definitely feel like you're at the centre of something. The university's resources are just unparalleled, and the intellectual climate in the humanities is thrilling: there are just countless people doing rich and exciting work.
"There are so many opportunities available: I had my first museum experience working with curatorial staff at the Harvard Art Museums. I've made some wonderful friends over there in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my department in particular has been a warm and inviting place for me.
"I've had and continue to have some outstanding mentors. I'm really thankful for everything that Harvard has offered me—hopefully I'll be able to return some day before too long."
Paul made the decision to move to Wellington suddenly in March, after the Harvard campus shut down and all classes were moved online.
He spotted an advert for the Liz Stringer scholarship and thought it was the perfect opportunity for him.
"I do love my academic work, but sometimes it can feel like what I do is so esoteric and disconnected from the 'real world': it's always appealed to me to share my knowledge and excitement about art (and literature) to a broader public, and curatorship is a line of work that I've long been interested in pursuing.
"It's a real privilege to have this chance to get some experience with it. Museums and galleries have such wonderful potential to get people from all walks of life thinking about the important questions that art, literature and culture pose.
"It was a lot of fun to conceptualise and propose an exhibition for the gallery, and I'm looking forward to bringing it to life.
Paul commenced his internship last month and will be working on an exhibition, to be staged in December, looking at how portraits and their means of display and dissemination create, express and challenge systems of power.
"My exhibition will explore the relationship between portraiture and power. The relationships between patrons, sitters, artists, exhibitors and viewers always operate within systems of power, and when a portrait is commissioned, made, and, especially, displayed and disseminated, these systems are brought into action.
"I plan for the show to consist of both traditional portraiture in the form of paintings on the wall and sculptural busts, as well as exploring the ways that we encounter portraits in the world: on coins and stamps and souvenirs, for example," said Paul.
The internship was established by New Zealand Portrait Gallery trustee Liz Stringer in 2017 to give recent graduates essential hands-on experience in exhibition making and to provide that vital and elusive first break for talented young people who show so much potential.
New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata presents stories of New Zealanders through the art of portraiture.