Courtney Johnston can't wait to start at Dowse

Courtney Johnston: "What I bring, not coming straight out of the sector, is a variety of interests and networks; a bunch of different lenses to look at the institution and the community and pursue our objectives with."
SIMON EDWARDS
Courtney Johnston: "What I bring, not coming straight out of the sector, is a variety of interests and networks; a bunch of different lenses to look at the institution and the community and pursue our objectives with."

Posting her latest entry on the arts and writing blog site she started five years ago, Courtney Johnston writes she's "beyond delighted" she will be the next director of the Dowse and Petone Settlers Museums.

"I can't wait. I can't wait! What a privilege it is to be part of the constellation of artists and gallery professionals and dealers and historians and writers and critics and collectors and vast Milky Way of fans and visitors and visitors-to-be that art brings together."

Johnston, 33, starts in the Dowse/ Settlers role on October 29, taking over from Cam McCracken, who will lead the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Her comments are included with her lively blog on Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, at Te Papa, where she was moved to tears by the way a diverse group of visitors reacted to the installation of pianos and bull sculptures - some listening quietly in contemplation, some dancing, some running their hands over the flanks of the bulls (see http://best-of-3.blogspot.co.nz/2012/09/emotion.html).

She tells Hutt News Parekowhai's installation is a good example of how art can shake people's lives.

"We wouldn't have art if it wasn't powerful.

"It's not 'useful', so clearly it's doing something else for us as humans.

"I've had other experiences like that which have just been magic.

"That's what I'm going to be looking for [at the Dowse]; that magic so people feel that connection."

As well as the blog, Johnston has been the arts correspondent on National Radio's Nine to Noon show for two years.

She says she feels excited, rather than intimidated, about moving from a role commenting on arts to stamping her own mark on a leading arts venue.

"What I bring, not coming straight out of the sector, is a variety of interests and networks; a bunch of different lenses to look at the institution and the community and pursue our objectives with.

"Having that richness of view makes you really open to opportunity, new ways of doing things, partnerships to take or grow."

As well as meeting the wider objectives of the city council, she wants to make sure the two museums are leading in their own right.

"The Dowse has a strong personality; people speak of it with such fondness.

"I want to keep making that personality strong, amplifying it so it can reach more and more people.

"We don't just have a local presence but a national and international presence."

How will she deal with those who say the Dowse is too arty-farty, a drain on ratepayers?

She says the first job is to get to learn what such critics are looking for, and that includes getting outside the physical walls of the gallery.

Growing up on a dairy farm outside New Plymouth, hers was not a family that went to art galleries.

"I had to figure that out for myself - going into those places can be an intimidating experience.

"Art is made by the artist to reach people.

"Our job is to help that reach happen and there are all sorts of different ways to do that."

Touching lives will be easier because the Dowse has "such a broad remit, from craft through to contemporary art".

She was not artistic at high school - "I couldn't draw things that looked like things!" - but got hooked on art history.

She gained a masters degree in the subject, starting study in Otago then transferring to Victoria University.

Her thesis was on Peter Tomory, Auckland Art Gallery's second director in the 1950s and 1960s, a period in which New Zealand's "art infrastructure was just starting to be built, with galleries starting to professionalise".

Tomory had a lot to do with the artist who Johnston names as her favourite, Colin McCahon.

"The more often you go back to him, the more he gives you."

Student jobs widened her experience. For about a year she was on the floor of Te Papa, "wearing the thumb print shirt".

"That was pretty good training . . . seeing what makes people comfortable and uncomfortable [when they're visiting an institution]".

One of her Masters projects included being researcher for Michael Stevenson's 2003 Biennale project, Trekka.

Stevenson would send his research requests from Berlin, and Johnston would go digging at Turnbull library for "photos of butter production from the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company in Petone from the 1950s, or statistics about how New Zealand was preparing for nuclear disaster and how many iodine tablets we had stockpiled . . .

"I was bringing all this material together for him, sending it off and watching him in fascination as he knitted it all together into this narrative."

After university, she worked at City Gallery.

First she was a research assistant, then a publicist.

In 2006 she joined the National Library, originally in a communications role.

"Then I saw the web team was where the fun was, and moved there."

She worked her way up to being web manager. Expect even greater use of Facebook, blogs, Twitter and the like by the Dowse in future: "inventive" use of digital and social media is a great way of reaching out to people, she says.

Her current job is general manager at Wellington web agency Boost New Media, which specialises in working with culture and heritage organisations.

Johnston says a big part of her role there is creating an environment in which a team can work really well, clearing out all the obstacles that slow down core roles and creativity.

"You can't come out of the private sector without having a strong interest in things like processes that make people's working lives easier.

"One of my ultimate tests on whether I do a good job is how much people want to work at the Dowse, and how happy and challenged staff feel."

The National Radio role came about by throwing herself in. A friend was the show's new media correspondent but was going to be stuck on a plane and rang her the night before a slot: 'Can you fill in?'

"I was like, 'yeah, sure' and then I spent the whole night terrified. I'd never done radio or anything like that."

But she enjoyed the experience and was soon invited to be an arts correspondent. Like her blog, she sees it as a way of keeping in touch with the sector.

Hutt City Council's community services manager Matt Reid said there were some fantastic candidates for the Dowse/Settlers role and the interview panel thought Johnston would bring "strong leadership, creativity and amazing energy to an already high performing team".

Johnston says again to us: "I can't wait. My brain has just starting pinging and swimming. I got the offer and was starting to look at the world in a different way . . . how would this relate when I'm out there, could I do this or try that. . . ."

Hutt News