Why haven’t locals run our city’s leading cultural institutions for decades? As Auckland Museum recruits its next chief executive, Janet McAllister finds power is shifting in the cultural landscape.
“I just cringe – wow, why was that appointment made?” says Arapata Hakiwai (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tahu). The kaihautū and Māori co-leader at Te Papa is speaking generally of museums and galleries over several years around Aotearoa. “We have great leadership in New Zealand, but for some reason we seem to think that overseas is better.”
Courtney Sina Meredith, former director of Tautai Pacific Arts Trust, doesn’t mince words. “It’s a colonial overhang. We still have this notion that we’re the offspring of Britannia, and the proper leadership, the proper knowledge, is not here.”
Emeritus Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Ngāpuhi and Waikato) emphasises that this “disturbing [and] disappointing” trend of “Antipodean cringe” – the belief that “whatever we produce or whomever we nurture and train can never ever be good enough” – is also entrenched in universities. The cultural scholar and art historian is distressed that sometimes “opportunistic and craven” outsiders see Aotearoa as “yet another step on a career trajectory”.
“What do you mean by that?” asks Dayle, Lady Mace MNZM when asked if “cultural cringe” encourages international appointments. As erstwhile chairperson of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery and current chair of Te Papa Foundation, Mace disagrees, saying New Zealand is not exceptional. “Institutions globally are interviewing candidates from other parts of the world, and they’re moving around all the time.”
True. But New Zealand – and Auckland in particular, perhaps – has a habit of appointing people from overseas into plum roles. Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum – currently interviewing for its top role – has not had a local chief executive since 2007, apart from Sir Don McKinnon who stepped in temporarily after the sudden 2010 departure of Canadian Vanda Vitali (who – possibly understandably – allegedly banned staff from wearing Crocs to work). Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki has been led by Australians (and one European) for 35 years, more than a generation. “Ex-pat Kiwis” also seem more likely to be hired than locals.
Even the landmark 1980s exhibition Te Māori had to go on the Big OE (New York) before Pākehā would start acknowledging the importance of Māori taonga.
The catch-all word “overseas” masks a narrower set of unspoken criteria. More than 40 per cent of Auckland residents were born overseas – but their “overseas” is mostly not the “overseas” of cultural leadership appointments. While half of overseas-born Aucklanders were born in Asia, and around a fifth in the Pacific, the overseas-born cultural leadership appointees all have European-tradition experience, and are almost exclusively white people (kudos to Artspace’s 2014-2017 Turkish director Misal Adnan Yildiz for breaking the whites-only glass border).
So let us be clear. The issue is not the individuals themselves. Locals can be duds, and many internationals are beloved, and can be supportive of Māori aspirations and the sector in general. Elizabeth Ellis (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou) who founded Haerewa, the Auckland Art Gallery’s Māori advisory group in 1994, found the gallery directors she worked with over the years were “very personable, very charming, professional, knowledgeable”.
But why appoint someone who has no experience of Aotearoa New Zealand’s cultures and cultural politics to a cultural leadership role? Everybody agrees we just need “the right person for the job”. The real argument is about what the job is.
For Auckland Museum, some of the job description is literally written into the law. It has its own Act of Parliament that makes the director (chief executive) responsible for “ensuring that obligations imposed by the Treaty of Waitangi as they affect the Museum are taken into account”.
Could a new director just resource a museum’s Māori team and get out of their way? No, says a Māori sector professional. In a museum, “there are some extremely important decisions that are made in terms of taonga, relationships, repatriation [of taonga to iwi and hapū], of the mana of objects and people, that there’s no getting away from.” Not being informed is an institutional risk. While not ruling out an overseas appointment, the professional says, “I find a lot of international appointments are stunned in the headlights. There’s a lot of goodwill, but they don’t understand the landscape they’re moving into, they have no or little to no understanding of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” (The head of the Auckland Museum’s Māori advisory body, Taumata-ā-iwi, Precious Clark – Ngāti Whātua ki Tāmaki, Te Uri o Hau, Waikato, Ngāti Hē, Ngāti Pāoa – declined to comment, to ensure the integrity of the current appointment process, which she is involved in.)
Acts of Parliament notwithstanding, current Auckland Museum strategy does not centre the Treaty nor Māori and frankly, Te Papa’s strategies – on paper at least – leave Auckland Museum’s in the dust on these counts. Instead, the most recent Auckland Museum chief executive, Dr David Gaimster (2017-2023), often evoked the British Empire rather than contemporary Tāmaki Makaurau in interviews, with musings about his fellow Yorkshire man Thomas Cheeseman (an early Auckland Museum curator), and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Eighteen months into his tenure, Gaimster declared, “I came to Auckland to apply some of my learnings,” from his previous Glasgow appointment, and “I am surprised that Auckland doesn’t have a stronger identity, like other global cities,” chiding, “quite soon we need to crystallise what this city is.” Did he want the London Eye instead of the Pasifika festival? Asked for an example of an intriguing museum item, he chose insects in cigarette tins collected by a school teacher as “a great story of one man’s passion and dedication, and a microcosm of the museum world”. One man’s terribly old-fashioned museum world, perhaps.
Even for galleries and festivals, creative producer Rosabel Tan says, “You do have to have a really strong connection to Aotearoa.” If you don’t, apparently your team must share their contact book with you and hope like hell you don’t shame them in their own communities.
And while Ioana Gordon-Smith, lead curator at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua, is “keen for us to be open to international connections”. She also points out that many cultural workers in Aotearoa have been thinking about issues of indigenisation, decolonisation and indigenous art practices for a long time. Sector experts want leaders who can contribute to these conversations with pre-existing knowledge, rather than someone they have to (try and) educate.
But a non-Māori leader who is over-confident about their cultural understanding is also a problem. “There’s nothing worse than a Pākehā who thinks they know what’s good for us. So dangerous,” says a Māori sector professional. This includes people who’ve worked with indigenous artists overseas and who think cultures and contexts are replicable. “We’re not going to be told how to be Māori.”
Te Awekotuku emphasises, “As Māori, we are in charge of our own destiny,” but also agrees “that systemic racism, and that creeping resistance by others who assume the right to determine where we go and how we do it, hasn’t changed. If anything it’s gone underground and become more dangerous and more sinister, because you can’t see it”.
Some patrons are blatantly racist, says the Māori sector professional. “But we’re somehow intertwined because they offer arts and culture funding [so we have to] entertain this bulls***.” Philanthropic giving is about gaining power. “It’s pretty gross.”
Those who appoint the leaders are usually voluntary boards, and voluntary boards do “privilege a certain type of person who can afford to give their time,” says Tan. Translation: wealthy, usually Pākehā, and likely to have a Eurocentric vision of arts and culture in New Zealand.
Arts patron Dame Jenny Gibbs – named Auckland’s fourth most influential person in arts and entertainment by Metro magazine in 2015, just two places behind Mace – is a long-term Act supporter who recently gave $50,000 to the party that Te Pāti Māori has criticised for “appealing to racists”.
But optimism is in the air. Institutions currently have more of “an appetite to be courageous”, says Auckland Museum Māori curator Nigel Borell. He says Māori and Pacific staff at the Auckland Museum have increased greatly in the last 18 months, partially due to new projects like Te Aho Mutunga Kore, a textile and fibre knowledge exchange centre.
Māori are leading high-profile institutions nationally – including recent appointments of Sonya Korohina (Ngāti Porou) to Tauranga Art Gallery, Ana Sciascia (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Raukawa) to Pātaka and Ruth Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa) to Artspace Aotearoa.
Buchanan is a Walters Prize-winning artist in her own right, sister of Rachel (author of the sublime Te Motunui Epa) and – the OE tradition continues – she returned from living in Berlin to take the job.
Te Awekotuku points out Māori have long been influential leaders: her own mentor Mina McKenzie (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi, Rangitāne) led Manawatū Museum in the 1970s. It’s now more than time for Māori to lead larger institutions, say observers. Elizabeth Ellis: “The capability is there now, [so] there are no excuses.”
It is certainly no longer a good excuse to say a museum needs a leader who has already helmed a big ship, thanks to one Courtney Johnston (Pākehā). When she was appointed as chief executive of Te Papa in late 2019, the national museum felt bruised by leadership appointments from outside the cultural sector, and the board wanted a leader who was both local and had cultural sector credibility. The biggest institution Johnston had led was the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt – she went from leading 30 staff to leading 600. But, she says, she found her Dowse experience was adequate, given Te Papa support. “When you run one of these institutions you understand all of the factors and all of the tensions, the stakeholders, the collections, the commercial aspects of it, the political negotiations of it, health and safety, people’s welfare. And then the board has the opportunity to awhi you up as you scale that up.” Plus, “the flipside of moving to a much bigger environment is that you have heaps more support.”
The sector was thrilled and electrified by the daring hire. It was refreshing to see the museum sector’s most prominent leader publicly stating in 2020 that: “Museums are not neutral […] and they have a history of repressing voices and treating some people very poorly.” I interviewed Johnston alongside Arapata Hakiwai, whose co-leader position is now level-pegging with Johnston’s in Te Papa’s organisation diagram, and who has worked with four chief executives at Te Papa (“Interesting times,” he says drily). Hakiwai acknowledged Johnston directly: “I want to mihi to you Courtney … When a team has a collective intent and spirit to do the right thing for the right reasons it just makes that journey so much more meaningful.”
Other Māori professionals say Johnston understands how to work collaboratively in partnership, in contrast to internationals who might mistake hard conversations and wānanga for “win or lose” scenarios.
And Zoe Black (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine), Objectspace deputy director, says Johnston has a history of “trying to uplift everybody really generously” across the sector. Black expects Johnston would still answer her cohort’s emails seeking career advice. “You wouldn’t get that from an overseas appointment.”
Johnston, it seems, is the change she would like to see. While she welcomes the different world views of overseas appointments, she says “I really want to see my colleagues having a fair shot at these roles.” And she’d like to see sector-wide strategic discussion, about how all the individual appointments work in concert.
Meanwhile – appointments continue. After Anne O’Brien’s formidable and impressive 11 years at the helm, the Auckland Writers Festival has just appointed a British artistic director, Lyndsey Fineran, citing her track record as Cheltenham Book Festival deputy programming director, securing names such as Stephen King, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Isabel Allende.
The festival is magnificently self-billed as “the best-attended literary festival per capita in the Southern Hemisphere”, and festival board chairperson Leigh Melville points out, “To operate a successful festival you need names as well as all our cherished local writers.” It’s true arts and heritage funding is fragile and precarious (Lotto tickets, etc), but local observers are cynical: if the festival wanted someone international, why were Māori and other local contenders shoulder-tapped to apply? (Opaque recruitment processes are a common sector complaint.) And if the emphasis is getting Big Names in, where does that leave the local literature scene?
One potential non-Māori contender thought the artistic director should be Māori. And more than one was disappointed with the festival’s direction. Courtney Sina Meredith, who has guested as a writer at overseas festivals, pulled out from the recruitment process, with some personal frustration, when festival staff indicated the vision was international.
“I have committed my life and my career to Auckland and I think I have so much to contribute to a sense of place and a sense of belonging,” she says, with good reason. It is moot whether the festival would have seen her priorities – such as developing New Zealand literature, perhaps an Auckland voice – as being within their remit.
Another local feels the model of having a singular editorial vision from one artistic director is old-fashioned anyway. Melville says local staff will still have input next year, and there were Māori, Pasifika and Asian guest curators in 2023. However, between them, the guests curated just 10 of the 101 events.
Relatively recently, a major Auckland institution sent an “incredibly upsetting” message to the creator of a commissioned work, asking them if they could change the work to “look more Indian” because “it looks Asian”.
It’s as if artistic agency, cross-cultural pollination, and continental geography were never invented. Rather than calling for an Asian leader, Rosabel Tan – who last year led research into sector support for Asian artists – instead recommends including more people with different lived expertise at decision-making tables, to ensure basic respect and cultural competency.
Such collaboration and power-sharing seems incredibly fruitful, leading to more interesting programmes, when looking at Objectspace, a micro institution in Grey Lynn zeitgeisting beyond its size as a national organisation championing craft, design and architecture.
When director Kim Paton (Pākehā) arrived in 2015, she wanted to bridge “those gaps to communities who haven’t been visible at Objectspace”. Zoe Black started as community developer, nurturing relationships that resulted in exhibitions such as Fafetu: Lakiloko Keakea – a showcase of Tuvaluan fibre art that has since toured nationally – and Alive, which documented objects that travelled with refugees from Cambodia to Tāmaki Makaurau.
Crucially, projects are community- and artist-led (“We’re listening, not dictating,” says Black), and not all end up as exhibitions – for example, Objectspace assisted Afghan embroiderers to set up their upcycling and mending business website Kohni Zari Ko (turningoldtogold.co.nz). Black and Paton found vital relationships were less about raiding a staff member’s contact book (the usual patron-and-board view), and more about weekly cups of tea; and dancing, feasting and karaoke. Putting in the time. The commitment. Deadlines have become more flexible, and investment goes into people. Koha goes to community lead advisors; logistics such as transport and translations are taken care of; and the cold box of Objectspace is made as culturally familiar as possible.
The relationship work has also included at least one guided apology – for ignoring collective art-making practices and focusing on one individual. “I look back now and I think, ‘My God, you don’t know what you don’t know,’” Paton says, stressing the mistake happened before Black’s tenure. “We have persevered when we’ve got it wrong. It’s terrifying getting it wrong.”
Such humility, honesty and commitment are arguably necessary to staying relevant, as is the backing of a good, empathetic board (Objectspace’s board includes mixed skills and ethnicities, with mana whenua representation).
At the same time, Paton has grown the Objectspace staff headcount from two to 11, and its annual budget from below $300,000 to around $1.4 million. Just over 40 per cent ($600,000) is from Creative New Zealand, with private money making up the bulk. Black is now deputy director and, with that appointment, the new strategy is to always have a senior Māori role within the institution, says Paton.
It’s a start, and the future dream is to embed irreversible Māori-tauiwi co-leadership.
If larger institutions do not seriously engage with visions of indigeneity and community-led collaboration, they risk being left behind. After chairing Haerewa for Auckland Art Gallery for 27 years – a generation – Ellis resigned in 2021, along with most of the group. “Our voices weren’t being heard anymore, we felt,” she says. “So we resigned and most of us are on the trust for the Wairau Māori Art Gallery now.”
Wairau is small but independent and leading the way – not in a main centre but in Whangārei. Ellis sees it as a prototype for her new vision of MAMA – the Māori Art Museum of Aotearoa – “a stand-alone Māori art gallery [including] past, present and future of all Māori culture.” Te Mama will not compete with Te Papa but will look to keep its collection somewhere with a large Māori community instead.
Te Awekotuku also wants to see “the celebration of our work and our artistic and creative legacies through institutions of our own” to inspire future artists, but she prioritises a different aspiration: “tribal” institutions, created by iwi and hapū post settlement in their rohe, able to receive repatriated taonga.
This is a vision where work is well underway – Hakiwai has long been involved with such repatriation. “Various Māori iwi want to take a stronger role in telling their stories and caring for their taonga and that must be exciting,” he says. “Not all iwi or hapu want to do that but certainly there [some]. For [Te Papa] we should be absolutely thrilled and supportive.” Johnston agrees, linking local care for taonga to climate change resilience.
“This is the big opportunity space for this century actually,” she says. “Museums are in the forever business but forever is going to look quite different in the future.” In more ways than one.