Transition time

FROM THE COLLECTION: from left: Confident: Nude 1980 by Alan Pearson.
Expressive:Portrait of Hugh Scott by Mina Arndt.
Hugh Scott by Toss Woollaston.
Mesmerising: by Monique Jansen.
FROM THE COLLECTION: from left: Confident: Nude 1980 by Alan Pearson. Expressive:Portrait of Hugh Scott by Mina Arndt. Hugh Scott by Toss Woollaston. Mesmerising: by Monique Jansen.

Suter Art Gallery director Julie Catchpole is busy selecting works for a new show coming up in February. Titled Draw the Line, the exhibition will showcase works held in the Suter's collection as well as one on loan from a dealer gallery.

The Suter is on the brink of a major rebuild. In the meantime, staff are working "business as usual" with the spaces available, with technology that desperately needs upgrading, and within a space that was not built with earthquake proofing in mind.

Catchpole unlocks a large set of double doors, leading into what was previously a gallery space, the Watercolour Gallery, until around 2003. This is now the improvised Collections Room, with a smaller room - the original room for storing artworks - next door.

SELECTION PROCESS: Suter Gallery director Julie Catchpole sorts through works in the Collections Room.
SELECTION PROCESS: Suter Gallery director Julie Catchpole sorts through works in the Collections Room.

First impressions. Dark, almost sacred and not as cold as I had imagined a conservation space to be.

Catchpole says the room should be controlled 24/7 at 20 degrees Celsius, but due to the current set-up, it is prone to sudden fluctuations. Not ideal for conserving artworks.

"In the future the relative humidity will be in the ideal bracket, with heating and cooling for all galleries as well as the collection," says Catchpole.

We take a look at a row of large upright racks hung with paintings floor to ceiling. One side only, they are fixed in place.

"In the new gallery these will slide out on tracks, allowing more storage, front and back, and much better access," says Catchpole.

They will not be as high up - less dangerous for both artworks and staff.

Through a door and inside the smaller collections space, the air is freezing. Point taken about fluctuations.

Rows of small framed works are stored on their sides, shelves with plastic containers, ceramics inside, large cast bronze sculptures sitting on the floor, the room is packed but orderly.

Catchpole talks about her selection process. I suggest we move back to the warmer room to allow feeling back into my hand for note taking.

Catchpole wants to include drawings in different media, one from Alan Pearson, Nude 1980, confidently drawn, she wants to juxtapose this with a Toss Woollaston, both expressionistic artists but fields apart visually.

The show will go up in the wooden floor gallery. There is no time between shows to move the existing walls, Catchpole has to plan layout for the show around them.

"I need to think about things spatially," she says. "I'll put the life drawings in a small cluster, because we're close up when we draw them so we should look at them in the same context."

There will be some artists self-portraits as well, some abstract drawing. She mentions a work by Monique Jansen, Cadmium, huge at 3.5 x 2.8 metres. It is important to find a place for this work so it will not take over the rest of the show. Obsessive, the whole piece is made from carefully drawn triangles, using red oil stick, repeated over and over, dazzling to look at. It is currently rolled up and stored hanging from the ceiling in the collections room.

"The ideal for these big works is flat shelving, but there is a limit to how big you can make drawers," she says.

Under bubble wrap, a John Drawbridge is carefully slid from the shelf, white conservatory gloves on hands.

The bubble wrap is removed, revealing a bright flash of summery colour, without the heat. Watercolour with brushstrokes reminiscent of coloured pencil confidently dashed over the paper, Summer is sure to be a popular work in the show.

Catchpole searches through a folder with pages of numbers, artists names, cross references with titles, but hard copy only. We discuss the new build.

"There's no absolute date, but it will be mid-year, around July, we'll have to relocate everything."

In a town where other major events venues have closed because of earthquake issues, Catchpole is fully aware of the implications for the Suter.

"It's such a shame about the timing in a way, with our theatre out of use, meanwhile the School of Music also shut."

The Suter is still looking for a place to store everything, not only a valuable art collection of over 1300 works, but every other item within the confines of the actual building.

But with the closure there will be many positives.

"It will provide an opportunity to do a lot of work on the collection, updating the system and cataloguing the collection, getting that online," she says. "It will provide the time that we don't normally have."

On a bigger front, Nelson will have a completely different gallery after some two years of rebuild.

"It's exciting as there are so many things that will be better." says Catchpole. "We're lucky that we are starting a new building when there's awareness of public safety, with building strengthening against earthquakes and issues like wheelchair access are integrated."

It will also retain some of the best attributes of the current building, by opening up more to the Queens Gardens which enhance the whole ambience of a gallery visit.

Back to the selection process. Catchpole admits that she always over-selects.

"I spend a lot of time mulling over in my head what will sit well," she says. "It's about how the story connects."

The success of careful selection is that the viewer does not have to think about it making sense, the show should flow naturally.

"I always work some thread through a show so there's some consistency," she adds. "Sometimes, it can also be like jazz, it works because it is discordant.'

I am left thinking how much faster, safer and more comfortable this whole selection process will be, once in the new purpose built Suter Art Gallery with all the right facilities and the mod-cons working as they should.

  • Draw the Line, curated by Julie Catchpole, The Suter Art Gallery, 208 Bridge St, February 15 to April 13.