Date diaried for gallery reopening

Last updated 12:10 31/01/2014
Christchurch Art Gallery
John Collier
IN SAFEKEEPING: Christchurch Art Gallery's collection in storage.

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OPINION: When will the Christchurch Art Gallery reopen? Its director, JENNY HARPER , gets asked the question all the time. Here is her answer.

I read arts commentator Chris Moore's contributions to The Press regularly and I feel considerable empathy for him, for instance when he writes of dilly-dallying, style over substance and a lack of cultural focus in post-quake Christchurch.

Moore is happier when occasionally escaping to write about art elsewhere, but even when Te Papa's Colour and Light was reviewed, he yearned for a reopening in Christchurch with an exhibition on a similar theme.

Only last week he recalled those "splendid Victorians", issuing a broad challenge to ". . . show me a [painting] like George Leslie's 1904 In the Wizard's Garden in the Christchurch Art Gallery and I'll surrender to the inevitable" - one imagines in the context, endless joy.

Despite the gallery's collection online and our curatorial staff's image-rich fortnightly columns on various works in The Press, he longs for the actual experience of being confronted and seduced by the real thing.

I am well past trying to reckon how many, along with Moore, hanker for this art gallery to re-open and ask about its progress. Certainly everyone I meet on any and all social occasions or when I speak in public; certainly a range of children whose parents tell me they ask; certainly those who've written to us and to The Press, and certainly each of the core of committed staff who works here.

Although we've done well and won a national exhibition award for our Outer Spaces in early 2013, there's no hiding that progress has involved disappointment over the last few years. In 2011, we thought we could re-open when the next-door apartments were demolished; then mid-2013 seemed likely. By 2013, however, collectively we acknowledged it would be the latter half of 2015.

Without further [bad] surprises or delays, I'm optimistic this may be achieved.

Nevertheless, gallery staff and I are as desperate as our audiences to get back to full strength, to do what we're designed to do, to ensure familiar and some wonderful new art is accessible once more in this landmark building, a "survivor" in a city where so much has been demolished.

We are all certain that good art really matters; we're utterly confident of how successful we were and of our continuing potential for creative partnerships. We want to show once more that our collections can and do make the gallery a place of memory; how readily we pique the individual and collective imagination through conversations between old and newer art and through the varied experiences we encourage.

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The gallery is unique - it's an active and busy social space, as well as a place of calm and reflection away from the hurly-burly of the everyday.

It's a place of engagement, learning and discussion, and we're confident we can once more be among the city's foremost tourist assets. We know from worldwide data how visitors to any great city go to its public art galleries and museums to check out its DNA, to see what makes it tick.

We're OK with the temporary, the transitional (indeed, we've contributed more than 90 projects within the city since the earthquakes ourselves).

But we want to play our part in ensuring there's more in central Christchurch than (so very few) active building sites, more than filled gaps, greened rubble, and street art in the full glare of Christchurch's light. Give me a grungy Melbourne alleyway any day.

Continuing to speak personally, I'm longing to install Michael Parekowhai's Chapman's Homer on a redesigned forecourt.

It was secured for Christchurch last year with the help of so many individuals and groups, and seeing it finally "placed" will symbolise a recovery in this city we can be assured is wanted.

It's great to be in full flight writing of what we can do (and have been attempting on a smaller scale in the interim), how we want to re-ignite the gallery's collaborations with artists and scholars, to be champions of thought and new ideas, and to remain freely accessible and engaging to all who visit, whatever their age and circumstances.

In other words, and in case it's not crystal clear, I loathe being director of a closed gallery and I'm dead keen to see this one re-open.

But for now our building and our collections need attention.

Firstly, to the building: over time the ground underneath our car park beneath the building settled unevenly and eventually so did the building.

The concrete of the basement became stressed and it was evident that re-levelling was necessary in addition to the already proposed base isolation.

The council approval to re-level was gained in March 2013 and we are well into this crucial part of the building project - indeed, ahead of schedule. Re-levelling of the entire building will finish in March- April. The base isolation, which is scheduled to follow, is the most cost-effective and efficient way of ensuring the building comes up to the new building standard and is able to re-open in 2015.

Ultimately, this building is required to protect its collections as well as provide safe egress for people in the event of an emergency.

Base isolation is widely used in galleries and museums in the Pacific Rim and other earthquake- prone cities, and is an acceptable and recognised way to assure the people of Christchurch, our insurers and potential lenders that the treasures for which we care will be as safe as they can be into the future.

While small by New Zealand and Australian standards, Christchurch Art Gallery has a key number of absolute gems.

However, a crucial way in which we enhanced an interesting and varied programme up to our closure - and the way we grew our pre-earthquake visitor numbers to almost double this city's population - was by borrowing art from elsewhere.

I'm not talking only of international art for the few amazing and pivotal paying exhibitions shown here like Giacometti in 2006-07 and the astonishingly popular Ron Mueck in 2010-11. In the last few years of operating, an annual average of 640 works borrowed from private and public collections, local and further afield, was shown at Christchurch Art Gallery.

We want to be in a position to resume this activity. Realistically, it may be difficult for some time, but I am clear and determined to argue that our complex building repair programme should make borrowing and insuring key loans possible in future. With all land on our eastern boundary currently free of other buildings, we have a one-off opportunity to base-isolate, starting in May 2014.

Only after re-levelling and base isolation can we proceed to repair our wavy glass facade and the parapets which surround the building - and re-instate lighting and other fittings inside. Although not "unsafe", base isolation will be noisy and staff currently working upstairs in the gallery building will need to move elsewhere until it is finished.

Now to the collections: presently these are stored in downstairs exhibition galleries. Everything that has a crate is in its crate and we built a range of new ones for vulnerable works before taking them to this temporary storage area. All works of art are compactly stored and safe, and our fine arts insurance cover has continued throughout thanks to well-monitored collection management procedures.

As an internal priority, builders have repaired upstairs storage areas while re-levelling is undertaken. After checking climate control systems are optimum and have reliable back- up, our major task over the forthcoming weeks is to return works to storage.

Some will need special new fixtures; we have made special fabric corners to prevent frames from scuffing if they move.

All pieces will be carefully checked and some re- photographed for a new collection publication we are producing in conjunction with our trust and friends for re-opening. This is labour-intensive and will use all our technical staff and many others. It is essential, but behind- the-scenes work.

There is a lot of planning for re- opening a whole building at once. We will be excited to integrate a range of new works and to celebrate the collection we know Christchurch is missing. We're planning an opening exhibition with the working title Lift - it will be guaranteed to lift the collective spirits of the city.

So, what of the challenge to show parts elsewhere in the interim?

Yes, the National Gallery in London showed some paintings during the Blitz - well before the security and other demands of international insurance companies, the only ones ready to carry this level of risk. And yes, it's possible to identify some pieces that would be less susceptible to damage from changes in temperature and humidity and provide security for these - but they may not be The Wizard's Garden or The Dutch Funeral or Cass.

At one point, we hoped to use the spaces of CoCA next door, but, regrettably, their repair programme is currently not advanced enough. Make no mistake, re-opening elsewhere is much more complicated and expensive than it is for our agile colleagues in the Christchurch Libraries. Spaces for collections- based art galleries are generally unique in a given city.

With only a core staff now, our resources are stretched. But we draw your attention to what we are presenting at 209 Tuam Street (Mark Adams' Cook's Sites is there until March 23) and at CPIT's ArtBox complex on the corner of Madras and St Asaph streets, where Burster Flipper Wobbler Dripper Spinner Stacker Shaker Maker opens on Saturday, February 15. It's a crazy title, I know, but this is one of our shows for children of all ages and we hope you'll come.

Following some further photography, we also intend to install blown-up images of faces from the collection on the walls surrounding the gallery from about April 2014. For now, there are notices about what's happening behind those white walls.

Showing art in the interim is a dilemma but, on reflection, I'm happiest erring on the side of caution and doing all I possibly can to progress and advance the current building repair programme. Recalling that the council of the day approved the replacement of the former Robert McDougall Art Gallery (itself now in need of earthquake strengthening) as early as 1969 - and that it took until 2003 to open the new Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu - lends historical perspective to our dilemma.

It's not that we have to be as patient as our forebears were, but we do need equal persistence. I and my remaining colleagues are here until we re-open, knowing we'll need to augment staff well before, starting with a senior curator's position to replace Justin Paton.

Christchurch Art Gallery's present building schedule shows us completing on September 27, 2015 (we jokingly add, at 4pm).

What an opening it will be for this still-new gallery after four years closed; a cultural triumph in art-starved Christchurch and a clear symbol of a reinvigorated and functioning central city.

Thank you, Chris Moore, for - as it were - inviting this response. But I'm sorry to say that, unless a gallery space with all the practical requirements to make art of this value look good (and the extra finance to run it) becomes available, we all have to wait to see key works first-hand.

But happily, now that we're into 2014, we can say "next year" with a degree of certainty. Bear with us - and keep the fan mail coming, so we know you care as we do.

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

- The Press

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