A tragic story in which there is no winner

JOHN MAYNARD
Last updated 07:32 14/03/2013

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OPINION: I am deeply troubled about the relationship between the Len Lye Centre and the Govett- Brewster Art Gallery.

Regretfully the development momentum of the Len Lye Centre makes it difficult for any sensible intervention to resolve alternatives and to counter the spin and the carefully woven narrative pitched for the Len Lye Centre, which is a fantasy . . . nothing more or less.

The drama is around how the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery has been sidelined and why it is about to lose a valuable and award- winning extension of the gallery to make way for the Len Lye Centre. The gallery will be forced to close for more than two years.

Yet it would be so easy to keep the gallery open until the completion of the Len Lye Centre and then close the gallery for the earthquake upgrade.

The easy access to one wall of the gallery, made possible by demolishing the extension of the gallery for the earthquake upgrade, was the reason given in open council to save money. Saving money by making landfill out of an existing building worth say $4 million to replace doesn't make any sense. Or perhaps the real reason was to create a larger Len Lye Centre? Go figure.

So how did this happen and what's the back story?

Simple. This unfolding disaster can be sheeted back to the breach of trust by council of the deed which was entered into with Monica Brewster.

When no-one was watching during a restructure of council, the management of the gallery was captured by council bureaucrats. The art gallery committee was abandoned and a key governance condition of the trust deed was breached. The gallery was left outside of the tent without independent champions.

Work for lawyers to sort out this mess.

Soon after the bureaucrats took control, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Foundation was established. Its primary obligation was to keep alive the terms of the Monica Brewster Trust Deed and to support the gallery financially by raising funds for works of art, exhibitions and publications.

Sadly the trustees of this foundation, despite being a key stakeholder, have been excluded from the process of the Len Lye Centre decision-making and deliberately marginalised as an irrelevant nuisance to council's game plan.

Directors of the Govett-Brewster gallery are also trustees of both the Govett-Brewster and Len Lye foundations. These trustee appointments come with the job. The Len Lye Foundation have members on the Len Lye committee of council. The Govett- Brewster Art Gallery Foundation do not have any representation on council committees. Complex indeed and a rich sub-plot to the story which now poses the question of who gets the prize.

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I know all this to be true as I was there. I was there as the first director of the gallery. I was there to welcome home Len Lye in Auckland in 1968 when he returned to New Zealand after 46 years away.

I was there when Len returned in 1977 designing his exhibition at the gallery. I was there with Len and Ann in Warwick three days before he died. I know his wishes. I was there at the very beginning of the Len Lye Foundation, which I directed for 10 years. I was there as a confidante of Monica Brewster between 1967 and 1971 and of Ann Lye for 10 years after Len's death in 1980. And I was there as a trustee when the Govett- Brewster Art Gallery Foundation was established 10 years ago.

This is the inside story, and depending where you are in the narrative, it either gets better or worse.

The scaled up works of Len Lye revealed by John Matthews at that same special council meeting exaggerated the cultural benefits of the works to be placed in the Len Lye Centre. These works may be engineering wonders and no doubt a culmination of nearly 40 years of John's outstanding commitment to keep the Len Lye dream alive.

However, like Wind Wand in New Plymouth and Wellington's Water Whirler, they are not Len Lye sculptures.

Just recently I warned councillors to be aware of the tall story of overvalued local development effects. And then on cue in New Plymouth last week the arts minister went banging on about cultural tourism, claiming the economic value of the Len Lye Centre to New Plymouth to be $9.5 million a year. Ask the finance minister to underwrite this estimate - inflation-adjusted for the next 10 years - a request as absurd as the figures his arts minister spouts.

Did you hear John Matthews at the council meeting extrapolate a bizarre economic model based on every New Zealander visiting the Len Lye Centre once in their life? I would bet against everyone in Taranaki making a visit in their lifetime.

Although we're told different in another version of the story, we all know that the Len Lye Centre isn't the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. By any comparison, the Len Lye Centre is a cheapie - a slick little showpony which will destroy the streetscape and belittle the memory and works of Len.

The Monica and Len story is a tragic one - a bald-faced takeover of the gallery with little respect and dignity accorded to each superb gift and an insult to the thousands of participants, especially artists, who created this gallery into the wonder it is today.

It's a story without a winner - the gallery loses its mana and Len gets to play second fiddle to a flash architect.

It is said that history turns on a dime and bad things happen when good people say nothing - put it back on the agenda at the next meeting and rethink the proposal with revised plans before the bulldozer arrives.

John Maynard was the inaugural Govett-Brewster Art Gallery director and is a former director of the Len Lye Foundation.

- Taranaki Daily News

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