Manhattan transfer

Last updated 05:00 01/11/2014

Alice Hutchison traded life in the vibrant art world of New York and Los Angeles for Masterton.

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So, what does Masterton have that Manhattan doesn't?

More specifically, what does the Aratoi Museum of Art and History have over the hallowed repositories of contemporary American art that have called on the skills of New Zealander Alice Hutchison for the best part of two decades?

Art curator and writer Hutchison, 43, has been director at Aratoi for a year. She's already mounted The City Becoming and Decaying, the work of contemporary photographers from Berlin's Ostkreuz photographic agency, and now Milan Mrkusich: Chromatic Investigations and Paintings from the 90s, a project proposed two decades ago but without, until now, a chosen location. It's just opened.

It's not just the work. Masterton has other delights Manhattan and Los Angeles have no match for. "The quiet," she says. "The sound of birds to wake up with, birds chirping and a completely different lifestyle to being stuck in traffic every day. I can walk to work. It's a joy - beautiful fresh air and a beautiful landscape."

Hutchison's job at Aratoi follows a career that began with an internship at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art and curating and directing jobs in Los Angeles galleries such as the Ace Gallery, the Skirball Cultural Centre and the California State University Art Museum.

And, now, for her latest move, she's in rural New Zealand and a place, as she says, infinitely better known for being the home of the Golden Shears than for its cultural impact.

She plans to change that. She wants the museum to be "a primary destination for culture in the Wairarapa", and an exhibition such as the Mrkusich should be "very, very different and very accessible to a wide audience from around the country".

"Masterton hasn't had a reputation for much other than the Golden Shears. Aratoi has had amazing programmes like The City Becoming and Decaying. It has had and can do international programmes. We're very community focused but I'd like to be able to bring my international contacts here and to diversify programmes."

Hutchison was destined for a career in art by nature and nurture. Her mother is contemporary artist Philippa Blair and Hutchison grew up in Ponsonby, Auckland, "dragged off" from an early age to exhibitions, and surrounded by paintings, art books, magazines and her mother's creative contemporaries.

Musician and actor Bruno Lawrence visited and jammed, Tony Fomison lived across the road, Alan Maddox was nearby. Blair produced some paint and Maddox did one of his signature "cross" paintings for her on the spot. Still, Hutchison, taking her vibrant bohemian surrounding for granted, did not presume she'd make a life in art one way or the other.

"I am surprised I ended up doing it for the rest of my life." She completed an art history degree with first class honours at Auckland University in 1994 and, speaking French and Italian, she set off for Europe. She eventually completed her masters then the United States beckoned.

"I had never spent time in the US. I had looked at that art world from afar. I was overly confident and very naive with a masters of art, and curiosity, and I wanted to see the galleries and the great museums, and see the great paintings in the flesh, great American modern painters.

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"I had some friends and made friends and fell into an incredible downtown scene and felt a sense of belonging." A friend worked in fashion and Hutchison became a stylist, decking out the likes of Debbie Harry and Prince in Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.

Then she scored her internship at the New Museum of Modern Art.

"I found a way in and loved it and it was the beginning of working in museums. I had to do everything else to survive, working for next to nothing to do the internship."

She returned to New Zealand after five years as curator and assistant director of the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles to be manager of art at Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North.

"It was during the Bush administration and it was really time to get out. The environment was toxic, with a constant daily onslaught of news about Iraq."

And, she says, "you get pangs of longing for New Zealand when you're away. Even though you become an American citizen, you never really lose that. It becomes ingrained."

In 2007 she was instrumental in the installation of Aniwaniwa, a sculptural work by New Zealand artists Rachael Rakena and Brett Graham, at the Venice Biennale.

"It had a very, very universal message of environmental responsibility and cultural loss. It was poetic and poignant."

While she was packing to go to Venice, the State University of California called to offer her the job of curator. So her career took her back to the US before she was offered the role at Aratoi.

Milan Mrkusich: Chromatic Investigations and Paintings from the 90s, is on now at Aratoi and runs until January 31, 2015.

- Your Weekend

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