Art in the Park

Stephen Davies has officially set up camp in the gallery’s second-floor office.
Stephen Davies has officially set up camp in the gallery’s second-floor office.

For the first time in 25 years, Anderson Park Art Gallery is in the hands of a new manager/curator. Lauren Hayes talks to the new man in charge, Stephen Davies, about what gallery-goers can expect.

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster: a man travels halfway around the world to take a job in a place he's seen only on Google. Virtual reality meets actual reality, crazy consequences ensue, and, somehow, after 120-ish minutes, everything works out happily every after.

The crazy consequences are yet to materialise for Anderson Park Art Gallery's new manager/curator Stephen Davies, who stepped into the role this month, but the story behind his recruitment runs along similar lines.

Davies had never set foot in the gallery before accepting the job, seeing only what was on offer at Anderson Park by browsing its website from his base in the United Kingdom.

He got lucky. Virtual reality Anderson Park aligned with the real thing, and now he's officially set up camp in the gallery's second-floor office, Davies says he has no regrets about his decision.

"I couldn't ask for a nicer place. The house is fantastic in itself and then the collections that we've got are pretty special."

Even Invercargill's climate, infamous for its not-so-tropical flavour, has failed to shatter his enthusiasm, with Davies admitting he quite likes "colder weather".

The manager/curator, who also goes by the self-appointed job title of "slash", playing on the punctuation of the double- barrel role, already has strong ideas about the priorities for the future.

Top of the list is education.

Davies and the board are planning to push the Anderson Park attractions to Southland schools and tertiary students, increasing the profile of the collection among the region's future artists.

He knows of art history classes in Invercargill taking field trips to Dunedin to visit galleries, ignoring the valuable resource they have on their doorstep, he says.

"I think people aren't as aware of what we've got as they could be.

"We're a little bit isolated here. It's getting people to realise that we are here for a start, and exactly what we've got in the collection."

The appeal is not only a bit of self- promotion. Davies believes schools need to utilise places, like Anderson Park, which are closer to home to ensure the next generation has access to art.

Across the developed world, art education is under serious threat from budget cuts and financial uncertainty, at risk of being culled from the curriculum completely.

"Resources are stretched for schools, which makes it difficult. Art is such an important part of who we are as people because it's a record of our social history . . . it's a reflection of who we are as a people at a given point."

Apparently, making use of the collection is important for the artworks, too.

Davies talks about a collection not being completely whole if it sits alone in a gallery, unviewed, almost as though paintings are living creatures with a carnal need for people to come and devour them.

But it's also a question of economics, he says.

"There's no point in having a wonderful collection or piece of art if you never look at it."

Davies has had no formal curatorial education and was a relative latecomer to the game, heading to art school only when he was 30.

After finishing high school, he worked as an apprentice at an electricity company, followed by stints at graphic design companies, in teaching, and on the board of an Auckland art gallery.

However, throughout his various careers, art was never far from his mind, he says.

"It was something that I kind of always knew I wanted to do.

"I've been working on getting more and more involved with the arts through my career and so, happily, I've ended up here, which allows me to work with art and work with artists."

He has spent most of the past six years in the United Kingdom - his wife is still there, scheduled to join him next month once her PhD in History is signed off - completing his Master of Fine Arts at Winchester School of Art, the same college musician Brian Eno graduated from in 1969.

Despite his new responsibilities, he has no plans to neglect his own art.

"When I went to art school, they said that 10 per cent of their intake would still be making art within 10 years of leaving.

"I certainly intend to stay within that 10 per cent . . . [but] artists are good at having skills that they can apply to lots of different situations, not just art-making."

Davies will focus on putting those skills to use at Anderson Park during the next few years, as he stresses the new job is not a short-term stopover.

He and his family intend to stick around in Southland for the foreseeable future, he says.

"My wife is quite excited to be coming here. We've really felt the need to put some roots down.

"It's a nice place to be."

The Southland Times