A city treasury of visual culture

Last updated 12:08 21/08/2014
Bronze bull
Dean Kozanic/Fairfax NZ

BULLISH: Chapman's Homer by Michael Parekowhai has been bought for Christchurch after a public appeal.

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OPINION: Art - and the collecting of it - matters to Christchurch as the city rebuilds, writes JENNY HARPER.

I've believed in the power of art for many years. Like all of us at Christchurch Art Gallery, I'm utterly clear that good art really matters. I'm convinced that collections of art matter more than a single work or that of a single individual. I've worked for 35 years to make art available and accessible to all - in the process I've become a collections addict.

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It's hard being director of a closed gallery, but my belief in the intrinsic merit of Christchurch's collection and my knowledge of how much it is loved has never wavered. We may be closed, but we haven't stood still. National and increasingly international recognition has come with our Outer Spaces projects and for our ability to think outside the square, to take an alternative route. What my colleagues achieve with artists and audiences are examples of the resilience and innovation which is this city's future.

Quietly we've carried on with collections work, researching and carefully adding to the city's collection, receiving gifts and bequests on its behalf. The special nature of this collection will be revealed afresh when we re-open. Curators are sifting though possibilities for our opening show taking the entire gallery, something not done before. A selection of works will be so far "unseen in Christchurch"; we'll be as proud of sharing these with visitors as showing old friends again. I promise a truly uplifting experience.

At our trust fundraising dinner last year, we launched a campaign to buy Chapman's Homer. For the next three months it's outside the City Council's headquarters - a brilliant reminder of a community-wide effort to represent the time the earthquake changed our lives forever. This purchase was supported by the council's public art fund, by campaign partners Westpac, who - together with the trust - matched funding through a highly visible PledgeMe campaign. It was also supported by the media, including The Press, and 1074 big-hearted individuals and companies who helped ensure it stayed.

This year we're even more ambitious. At last Saturday's dinner the gallery's foundation launched an endowment fund with a target: to save $5 million during the next five years for collection development. We've decided to ban the words donate and give. This is a partnership; it's mutual; it's about loyalty; it's about building our legacy; it's about art.

We're suggesting three ways for individuals (and duos or families) to grow the endowment with us. It will mean some amazing savings but, collectively, we can do it. We're building relationships with some new supporters, and maintaining friends.

But that's not all. We're also going to buy five great, largely externally-funded, works in five years. Chapman's Homer, the bronze bull on the piano, was No 1 in our mission to reflect a developing Christchurch identity.

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A marvellous and playful work which Bill Culbert made for the 2013 Venice Biennale of Art, Bebop, is No 2. First shown in a corridor beside La Pieta, a church close to St Mark's Square - Bebop is a beauty. When our gallery re- opens, it will soar above the white marble staircase. It'll become part of our legend: valued, loved, responded to and enjoyed for many years.

Collections matter because works of art such as these hold stories. Our storerooms - and soon our exhibition spaces - are full of stories about places, people, artists, ideas, us.

Stories overlap and interlock in a collection, providing us with perspectives on the times and places we've lived and explored - from the suburbs of Christchurch, to New Zealand's high country and beyond to the Pacific and the rest of the world.

They're also about how we live - you can trace the rise of feminism through the collection; or investigate New Zealand's complex and changing attitudes to war. You can gain a multi-faceted sense of how we've viewed ourselves as New Zealanders. In the 1950s there were vehement local arguments about Frances Hodgkin's The Pleasure Garden. But once the painting was ours, all sides upheld her freedom to paint with a spirit and invention fundamental to the time. It was something "worth fighting for".

Celebrate this with Gerrit Dou's The Physician bequeathed in 1965; Rita Angus's wonderful and enigmatic painting Cass; one of my favourites, L S Lowry's Factory at Widnes, bought from the former CSA Gallery only one year after it was painted in England, a contemporary work of its time.

Mix these with McCahon's Tomorrow will be the same, but not as this is, supported entirely by public subscription in 1962 when city councillors (who used to have more of a say in collecting) turned it down as "incomprehensible" and "incompetent"; and with Bill Hammond's Living large 6 purchased more recently by the trust.

Think of the Friends of Christchurch Art Gallery who helped to buy Seraphine Pick's Hole in the sky and Andrew Drummond's Room for observation in response to the city's challenge grant instituted in 2009.

The alchemy of these now sits alongside a sculpture by British artist Sarah Lucas's Nud Cycladic 2, given to the city twice over. The artist wanted to do something for earthquake-stricken Christchurch and donated the money she would have been paid; then Auckland collectors Andrew and Jenny Smith matched her generosity by giving us her work.

We can add a stunning 1965 Gordon Walters painting Black on white to the mix, because - and only because - of the amazing bequest of Norman Barrett.

Christchurch Art Gallery's collection provides examples of great individual generosity, a sample of cultural DNA found nowhere else on the planet. Without a collection, single works of art - even great ones - come and go; the lines connecting them to each other and to us are seldom drawn. Ours is the city's treasury of visual culture, a pataka of history, an armoury of memories and ideas. It's part of us; it gets more interesting over time.

Yes, we're here because good art matters and we've refused to close down because our building's not right yet. We've been buoyed by each other, our community, and by knowing it's difficult to imagine another place in the world where what we do makes such a difference.

It's important to maintain the cultural heartbeat of the city and to represent this time. This too is part of our rebuild.

Jenny Harper is the director of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

- The Press

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