Show me the money

Jim Geddes, John Money, Judith Tizard and Helen Clark at the opening in 2003.
Jim Geddes, John Money, Judith Tizard and Helen Clark at the opening in 2003.

Ten years on, the John Money Collection is still bringing artists and art lovers to Gore. Philip Matthews visits an unlikely cultural centre.

Lasting memories of a rainy day in Gore. The incredible scale of the Creamota building. The incessant tolling of the bells in the clock tower by the library. The astonishing collection of the Eastern Southland Gallery.

The third was to be expected. Ten years ago, there was some national fanfare around the opening of the John Money wing at the gallery. Money's personal art collection had been shipped from Baltimore and gifted to Gore.

 ‘‘Provider’’ figures from Mali in the John Money Collection at the Eastern Southland Gallery.
‘‘Provider’’ figures from Mali in the John Money Collection at the Eastern Southland Gallery.

The attractive brick building on the corner of Hokonui Drive and Norfolk St had served as Gore's library for a time. It was tastefully refurbished and extended.

Inside, the art is separated into three areas. In two small rooms as you enter, the photographer Laurence Aberhart is showing South by South East. An Aberhart show is always an event. Does any other New Zealand photographer have his consistency, his unwavering commitment to a vision? You instantly know his pictures.

In fact one is an old favourite. Aberhart's Old bridge structure from New Bridge, Clutha River, depicting a lone column standing like a monument in the river, dates from 1980 and establishes the artist as one preoccupied with memory and ruins. More than 30 years later, Aberhart returned to the deep south as an artist in residence at the Russell Henderson Trust in Alexandra and toured Southland and Otago, but you hardly notice the passing of time.

He shoots the familiar in lasting black and white. The war memorials and modest houses, Masonic lodges and cemeteries. A caravan, a motel in Lumsden. The damp landscapes you just drove through. The names of places you saw on the road map: Ophir, St Bathans, Arrowtown, Cromwell, Clyde.

The Aberhart world view is about melancholy and decline, the persistence of the past in the present. There are no people in these photographs but then there are no other people in the gallery. Which means that the John Money Collection takes on an even spookier aspect than usual.

Even if you think you are prepared, you are never quite ready for the strangeness of seeing these sometimes life-size wooden figures in these relatively tight and slightly dark spaces. The African head pieces and masks. The dance helmet, the Dogon horseman from Mali, a crouching figure from the Congo, bronze figures from Benin.

Finally, the five "provider" figures from Mali, life-size with animals over their shoulders. Standing in a row and staring back, with long wooden faces.

Interspersed among all this is western art by Rita Angus, Theo Schoon and Lowell Nesbitt.

The story goes that the pioneering psychologist amassed this unique collection of art from New Zealand, Australia, the US and especially Africa during his time at Johns Hopkins University. It filled his Baltimore apartment. You could open a door in his home and find yourself caught in the gaze of an ancestor figure from Mali.

Born in Morrinsville in 1921, Money emigrated to the US in 1947, spending nearly all his working life there. He got his doctorate from Harvard and established himself as a specialist in sex reassignment at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. His name spread beyond the small group who followed his professional work when his connections to the New Zealand literary world were revealed by authors Janet Frame and Michael King.

As a sexologist, Money's professional life was not without controversy. The case of David Reimer became notorious: after sex reassignment surgery supervised by Money, Reimer was raised as a girl but grew into a troubled and sexually confused adult. Reimer's story was told by US journalist John Colapinto. In another odd New Zealand twist, Peter Jackson bought the film rights to Colapinto's book, As Nature Made Him.

When I interviewed King in 2003, I told him that Jackson had bought the rights. King was very concerned about the damage that a film based on just one case might do to Money's reputation. More than a decade later, a spokesman could not confirm that Jackson still intends to make a film about Reimer.

After the John Money Collection, make your way to the gallery's Ralph Hotere Collection. If you were to mark the first anniversary of Hotere's death next month, and if Gore is within driving distance, this would be the best destination for a quiet Hotere pilgrimage.

There are three long "song cycle" canvases. There are 11 works from the Pine series that numbers 1 to 14 for the Stations of the Cross, a recurring system in Hotere's work. A collaboration with poet Bill Manhire, the Pine series used a Manhire line that doubles as an oblique description of Hotere's work and its mysterious forms of darkness: "Empty of shadows and making a shadow."

It's worth coming equipped with some Hotere knowledge. Return to Sangro from 1978 is a Hotere work that memorialises his brother Jack who fought with the Maori Battalion and is buried at the Sangro River War Cemetery in Italy. That was the artist's pilgrimage.

Jim Geddes is the reason that all this happened. In 1989, as "the curator of a small town art gallery", Geddes was on study leave in the US. He had been told that he should drop in on Money if he was ever in Baltimore. He did, was offered a strong drink and could hardly believe what he saw.

In the mid-90s, Money got in touch with Geddes again, asking for help in finding a permanent New Zealand home for his collection. Geddes catalogued the works and wrote letters. A major centre was interested but wanted to split it between an art gallery and a museum. Money was adamant that it should all stay together.

In the end, Money suggested that Gore could be an option. Was that so unlikely? Michael King, and curators in Dunedin and Invercargill, were also encouraging. Some fundraising followed - more than $1.2 million was needed - and the collection came south, delayed slightly by the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The Money collection has had a snowball effect ever since.

"The artists who want to exhibit here are people we never thought would stop in Gore for a cup of coffee, much less have an exhibition," Geddes says.

Gifts attract further gifts. Inspired by Money, Hotere gifted 36 works to Gore. The Hotere collection has expanded to 75 since with work gifted by former Hocken Librarian Michael Hitchings, former Gore librarian Natalie Dolamore, Globe Theatre founder Patric Carey and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Some metropolitan galleries may have larger collections but this is New Zealand's only permanent, dedicated Hotere gallery.

It was Dolamore who donated the Pine series, or 11 out of 14. Does it mean someone out there has the missing three?

Geddes suspects it may be more complicated than that. Hotere told Geddes that he produced three Pine series and each is slightly different. They may never have been complete.

They were made during a busy period plus Hotere would slip the occasional spanner in the works "just to throw people off a wee bit. He had a keen wit".

The entrance to the Hotere gallery is marked with a poem about Hotere by Otago poet Hone Tuwhare and a portrait of the poet by Simon Richardson. Hotere has gone. Tuwhare has gone too.

In unexpected ways, the Money collection can also have the feeling of a mausoleum, or perhaps a memorial to some great New Zealanders. So many of the key figures are gone, some not long after the opening of the Money wing in December 2003.

Geddes remembers that Money just made it for the opening, at the age of 82, on his last trip back to New Zealand. He died in Baltimore in 2006.

Frame made it too and died in Dunedin only one month later. Michael King was unable to make the opening as he was finishing radiotherapy. He died the following year and never got to see the exhibition.

"It was a busy time," Geddes says. "It was a really nice gathering, there was a lot of public interest and then those people just disappeared, really."

Ten years on, how many stop here and take in the art?

Visitor numbers now average around 20,000 a year, which is good for a town with an urban population of about 8000 that is not on the established tourist trail. Geddes remembers that the local response was muted at first but "by virtue of people coming into town and being enthusiastic", locals took a second look.

"Now they're very, very protective of it and very supportive of us. Some people will still not get exactly what Ralph's about or what elements of the Money collection are about, but they like to know it's here."

Given the South Island links - Frame, Schoon, Angus, Douglas Lilburn and others - it makes sense that the Money collection wound up this far south. Geddes says that Money also understood the cultural isolation of smaller places. He was a sole charge teacher at the remote, now-closed Pine Valley School in Marlborough for a time in the 1930s. He also saw examples in the US of towns becoming creative centres and hoped that his collection might inspire others.

"And he was absolutely right," Geddes says. "Ralph came onboard and now we get Aberhart and people of that stature."

When the Aberhart show wraps up next month, and is shipped to Alexandra and Arrowtown, the gallery will show contemporary art from China and the touring exhibition Kermadec: Lines in the Ocean, with work by John Reynolds, Phil Dadson, Robin White and others.

There will also be a major refreshment of the Money collection this year. At the moment, the work is presented in a fairly straightforward way. The refreshment by a significant New Zealand curator will tease out stories and new interpretations.

Geddes is also sorting out the transfer of Muka Studio, a lithographic workshop in Auckland that was used by Hotere, Reynolds, Tony Fomison and others. Muka closed in 2011 and its owners gifted it to the Eastern Southland Gallery, which will house it in the former East Gore Presbyterian Church. An artist's residence is to be established. Another reason for artists to stay in Gore for longer than a cup of coffee.

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