Editorial: Gallery grabs city's attention

Last weekend's Christchurch Art Gallery fundraising event carried a message much greater than a simple plea for more donations to support more art.

At one level you had the launch of an endowment fund to raise $5 million over five years to buy new art for the gallery, a celebrity chef meal and an auction that raised $80,000 towards buying a Bill Culbert installation piece called Bebop.

But at an even more important level, the dinner represented a continuation of the art gallery's successful drive to remain relevant to Christchurch. This is important because the city needs a gallery with that hunger.

It may seem odd to suggest the gallery's role could ever have been in doubt. Christchurch and art have always gone hand-in-hand. In the past the depth and quality of its arts scene challenged Wellington and Auckland, and in many ways surpassed them as a true expression of creativity from a landscape and a way of life.

But things have changed. The art gallery that re-opens at the end of next year will have been closed five years. The Christchurch it shut its doors on in 2010 is a much different Christchurch to the one its sweeping glass facade will greet in 2015. You can liken it to when an employee in a highly competitive workplace goes on extended leave. They often do so with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. There's anticipation for a well-earned break from the pressure of having to perform. But anxiety comes from fear their absence might be too easy to cover and their contribution less missed than they hoped.

The gallery director Jenny Harper and her team could be forgiven for having the same whispers of doubt.

The Christchurch of 2015 will be up to its eyeballs in debt and with a "bang for buck" focus on projects. Massive construction work will rage over and under its battered streets. It will be a city transformed by population shifts and business hub shifts. But it will also be a city with a keen hunger for art that resonates exactly because of all these changes and stresses.

That's a scary arena to re-enter; however, the city can take pride that its art gallery has long recognised this. It has fought to stay part of the cultural fabric even while crippled by a closed headquarters. The bold moves to take art to public spaces has kept the profile high. It also kept the gallery as part of the solution, rather than a symbol of the old, disappearing Christchurch.

So will the art gallery offer what the Christchurch 2015 wants once the big re-opening party is over? Will people come through the doors to be excited, challenged and informed, as well as enjoying the calming nostalgia of the old collections back on view?

You'd have to say yes, given the gallery's energy and self-awareness while shut. It hasn't sat back and said, "If we fix it, they will come". Christchurch is a booming, distorted, transformed city and its art gallery has a vital role in reflecting that while linking to a storied past. You need both to make sense of it all. The endowment is another step towards achieving that vision.

The Press