The treasure hunter

POWHIRI: The opening of the MTG Hawke's Bay.
POWHIRI: The opening of the MTG Hawke's Bay.

Prominent design and architectural historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins was a quintessential Aucklander. Born and bred in the City of Sails, he never dreamed of living in the provinces.

That is, until Napier beckoned eight years ago. New Zealand's art deco capital is, he says, "a little bit Walt Disney", beautiful and distinctive in equal measure;the perfect home for a treasure hunter like him. 

But like all big thinkers, Lloyd Jenkins reckons it can be more - and, at the wheel of the region's newest attraction, he might be the man to do it.

"I get in trouble [saying this], even living here now - I think Napier can be art deco-plus. But there are a lot of people here who say, 'We don't want the plus because it'll muck up the art deco.' But I think the MTG [Museum Theatre Gallery] Hawke's Bay shows you can have the plus, and it just makes the deco look even better."

The project, which opened in September, consists of three distinct but connected spaces - a deco museum, a refurbished 1970s theatre and a brand new art gallery - which sit perfectly in the heart of Napier's town square, with the Art Deco Trust on one side and the familiar pine trees lining the waterfront on the other.

Lloyd Jenkins has overseen the project since he was appointed director of the Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery in 2006.

His resume is lengthy - he has written, taught and critiqued design, been named one of the most influential design writers in the Southern Hemisphere and in 2008 was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to the discipline.

Lloyd Jenkins, who turns 50 this year, came new to the world of directorship - though all it took was some arm-twisting from friends, who "ganged up" on him, encouraging him to step up and take the reins.

His path to museum director and critic began at a young age. He says he was born with a passion for objects, and a degree in political studies was shelved soon after it was finished in favour of finding treasures, and then teaching others about them as a design lecturer at Auckland's Unitec.

"I realised I was never going to be a politician, but what I liked was objects. From a very small age I was a chronic second-hand shopper - my mother tells people I used to save up all my lunch money to spend in the second-hand shop, and go without food all day and eat 15 Weet-Bix when I got home," he says from his office, which is tucked away above the theatre, right in the middle of the massive, pearly building.

It's filled with the sorts of things you would expect to find in the world of a museum and gallery director - artwork, antique furniture, the business card of the local newspaper editor pinned to the wall.

His partner, writer Peter Wells, apparently calls him the most materialistic person he knows ("in the best possible sense") because of his obsession with the importance and meaning of objects.

"I'm not particularly good at now - now is not what fascinates me. I like the fact that now quite quickly becomes history. But I don't kind of live in the now moment - I realised I was interested in the history of design," says Lloyd Jenkins.

"We live in a world where there are too many beautiful things we ignore because they are not in fashion. But
the funny thing is I'm not particularly sentimental or emotional about objects, which is strange. It's like a professional relationship, and then they'll go."

Lloyd Jenkins isn't afraid to have an opinion on things. In person, he's softly spoken, quick to laugh, with a fondness for tartan. But as a critic he can be fierce, often polarising. Naturally his view on New Zealand's innate style is the same.

"New Zealanders want to hear that we have this undiscovered, glamorous, sophisticated thing happening, but we don't," he says with a sigh. "We tend to have a very strong eye to the rest of the world, and then we tend to make relatively crude versions of what's happening."

He insists it's not a bad thing, though. "If you turn that word crude around, you can see it as quite pioneering, simple and basic, pragmatic and problem solving. You put [local designs] in a New York apartment and they are going to stand out like a sore thumb, but here they are actually what we make; they are really quite beautiful."

These often misguided expectations, he says, stem from the 1980s, when the word "designer" was stuck to all sorts of things. "That's a perfect example," he says, pointing to a Philippe Starck Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, in all its silver, squid-like glory, perched on a much older wooden sideboard in the corner of his office.

"The stupidest lemon squeezer in the world that costs you $300 and doesn't work, which I just bought for $5 in a second-hand shop. I still do that, much to the annoyance of my collection manager," he whispers. Lloyd Jenkins really
can't stop himself from this op-shopping business.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he defends some of the pretension that exists in the art world, although he chides New Zealand's "unfortunate fixation" with contemporary art.

"One of the things I love is revealing the person who's done really amazing work that this generation don't know about; someone who's been overlooked. There are plenty of art snobs out there, but what's changed in New Zealand in my lifetime is there are people and art is just a very normal, ordinary part of their existence. You can't point your finger at them and say they're art snobs just because they have art, but there are some people who have a very pretentious
attitude to art. They're not very interesting people."

Going down the list then, we're not always sophisticated, and we can be a bit snobby; are we any good at taking risks?

"Yeah, we can be. I think most New Zealanders are horribly conservative, but they like to grasp the three or four people who are risk-takers and say, 'They are us.' [We can be] chronically conservative," he muses.

"The day we opened for the powhiri, a woman pointed to one of the artworks and asked, 'What's that?' I told her it was a heart and she said it was revolting. I thought, yes, I'm doing my job."

According to Lloyd Jenkins, that's what galleries and museums are all about: asking questions and making people think.

"It's got to be classy, it's got to be good, it's got to be changing, it's got to be dynamic - there are too many New Zealand museums that are boring and this one is not going to be. If [visitors] are willing to engage, they leave here smarter, not dumber. There's stuff that is simple and beautiful and elegant and lovely, but there's also stuff that you go, 'uh... '

"If you come to an art gallery and the experience is only nice, then we are not doing our jobs."

As we wander through the moa skeletons and Napier earthquake exhibition, Lloyd Jenkins' favourite spot is surprising, given his thoughts on "deco-plus" - the octagonal entrance to the oldest part of the building.

It's calm and quiet, there are a few artworks on the walls and a magnificent chandelier hanging above a statue that was rescued from under some stairs.

DOUGLAS LLOYD-JENKINS:"I'm not particularly good at how - now is not what fascinates me. I like the fact that now quite quickly becomes history."
DOUGLAS LLOYD-JENKINS:"I'm not particularly good at how - now is not what fascinates me. I like the fact that now quite quickly becomes history."

The area had been hacked at in the '60s, when deco was out of favour and a truck dock was needed, but now it's something quite elegant and unexpected.

"There's a lot of me in this building," says Lloyd Jenkins. "I've worked very hard. This institution has had wonderful directors and if you look at its high points, that's when it's had men of vision who want to achieve something. And they've done it.

"It's not my museum - it's the Hawke's Bay's museum - but for a moment it's got my fingerprint on it and I'm very proud of that."

Sunday Star Times