Louise Garrett, ‘Domestic Feel to Ten-Artist Exhibition’, The Dominion, 20 December 1993.
This exhibition was initially organised for the 1992 Seville Expo by two exhibiting artists, Tony Lane and James Ross.
There is no sense that these artists’ works are meant to represent a specific national identity defining New Zealandness: rather the artists are local individuals presenting their work in an international context.
The problem of definition isn’t avoided though—made obvious by the title of the exhibition. In part the ‘distance’ of the title is that which exists between definitions inherent in the colonial and post-colonial worlds. (How are we to see ourselves?)
The element of cultural exchange in this show realises a two-way process: a generous existence that gives full recognition to the artists’ work. This means that overt or domineering curatorial construction is absent and the art works are given room to speak.
There is a domestic feel to this exhibition that is obvious in Jacqueline Fraser and Gavin Chilcott’s works. Both of the ‘rooms’ they create tend to break down the distinction between art and craft and presuppose a personal interaction between work and viewer that is related to the interior.
In much the same way, works in this show would look good in someone’s house—a rather puerile distinction maybe, but one that maintains intimacy.
Richard Reddaway’s sculptural photomontage Pediment also emphasises humanist values.
He uses the repetitive imagery of classical architecture to give his construction definition.
The historical nature is important here. Classical values are also inherent in Gretchen Albrecht’s work, which is derived from modernist abstraction. Her oval-shaped canvases are rather like eyes and again the emotional level surfaces.
James Ross’s work is more directly involved with memory—he presents memorials to barely forgotten values evocative of a colonial past. So his trophies and plaques perform a construction of historicism related not only to personal but media transmission. Recreation and evocation play alongside.
The artificial nature of art is further celebrated through Lane. His quasi-divine canvases evoke visions of early Italian quattrocento art. The work understands the desire for aesthetic experience in a knowing way.
This is an exhibition to see.
Keith Stewart, ‘Look Here’
While the centrally funded, politically correct Headlands raised eyebrows and artists’ blood pressures in Sydney, another show by local artists has been quietly accumulating respect on a tour of European galleries. Distance Looks Our Way has been moderate its aims, funded as much by enthusiasm and effort as by hard cash and institutional largesse, but has made important beginnings for New Zealand in Europe. It has also added some valuable gas to the fuel tanks of our artists’ confidence.
The opportunity for the show was first indicated to Wellington artist Tony Lane late in 1989 by Ian Fraser, who organised New Zealand’s contribution to Expo in Seville. With no guarantee that visual arts would be included in the programme, but with Fraser’s offer of help for some sort of presence, Lane contacted Auckland painter James Ross, who had some experience of the international art world through his curating of the NZ/NY show in New York, and between them they put together a show specifically for Seville.
‘It was not intended to be a carefully curated show representative of New Zealand art’, says Ross. ‘It was important we kept everything in proportion to what we were able to do, so this is more like a slice of the pie. It has older artists, those in mid-career, as well as younger artists like Michael Stevenson.’
Ten artists were selected: Ross, Lane, Stevenson, Gretchen Albrecht, Gavin Chilcott, Bill Hammond, John Reynolds, Richard Reddaway, Jacqueline Fraser, and Elizabeth Thomson. As Ross says, ‘a slice of the pie’—but one that attracted attention as the show travelled beyond Seville to four other European venues: Barcelona, Zamora, and Madrid in Spain, and Leiden in the Netherlands.
The response in Europe was very favourable, and considerable interest was aroused in New Zealand and its art. A series of presentations by artists Jacqueline Fraser and Richard Reddaway, which was co-ordinated in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and other Dutch cities in association with the Leiden exhibition, attracted large crowds ignorant of, but extremely interested in, New Zealand. ‘They found our symbols and subject matter very difficult to read, especially the Māori side of my work’, says Fraser. ‘But they were fascinated, and the response was very positive.’
In Madrid the venue was the influential Centro Cultural de Cond e Duque, which valued the exhibition enough to publish its own catalogue. Cond e Duque is the contemporary art institution in Madrid, and being shown there was something of a coup.
‘Madrid just loved it’, enthuses Fraser. ‘It was what they had been hoping for, although they had no notion of New Zealand at all. The work was readable to them because it was contemporary, and those people know contemporary [European] art very well, but they were interested because it was not European. They were also surprised, because I don’t think they thought we were up to it.’
Not only were the artists up to it, but so was the organisation, with its impressive professionalism and the innovative way it turned a tiny opportunity into an important touring exhibition, appearing in some of Spain’s most prestigious galleries. It didn’t depend on art bureaucracy committees, and it managed to fundraise and coordinate with at least as much nous as institutions with grand titles and letterheads. With collector Jenny Gibbs and Wanganui’s Sargeant Gallery director Bill Milbank, Lane and Ross formed a trust to manage the affairs of the exhibition. This team then worked in with the Sargeant Gallery, funding the show with patrons who secured works from the participating artists for cash contributions. The QEII Arts Council helped publish the handsome bilingual catalogue, while Expo sponsors P&O provided transport.
Milbank estimates it cost less than $200,000—a snip for the exposure it gained. Once again, a small provincial gallery has supported local artists and taken a lead in extending the boundaries of contemporary New Zealand art; with extraordinary results.
As Ross says, ‘It has been a very satisfying experience, a co-operative effort that has paid off for a lot of people. I think we should have them every other year.’
Samson Samasoni, ‘It Reigned in Spain’, Capital Times, 8–12 December 1993.
‘You’re supposed to be careful with babies and sharp things but this latest work is the most vicious thing I’ve ever done,’ she says. ‘I think I’m perverse.’
Some would certainly agree that her perspective has allowed her to create some stimulating and challenging work. But perverse is perhaps a bit heavy. Thomson, who was originally from Auckland, has work in the Distance Looks Our Way exhibition at the City Art Gallery.
The exhibition, which has an impressive pedigree having come to Wellington from the 1992 Expo at Seville and a stint in Auckland, was put together by local artist Tony Lane and James Ross.
Ten artists were selected to show the rest of the world a ‘slice of New Zealand pie’. The artists were chosen by artists themselves, which gives the exhibition a completely different feel.
Each artist was given an eight-metre space to do with what they wished. Thomson, who is best known for her bronze work, chose to fill hers with 100 hauntingly real, over-sized bronze butterflies. Her moth installation is entitled Phantoms of the Night and includes the rare and very large Ghost moth or puriri, the Moon moth, and the fast-flying Hawk moth.
The exhibition was the first of contemporary New Zealand art to show at an international fair. The work displays a mix of styles and materials which aren’t immediately recognised as art from New Zealand. But it reflects the current move by many local artists away from representing the landscape and the nature of place in their work.
The exhibition was very well received in Seville, with more than 67,000 Europeans viewing it.
Thomson shrugs off thoughts of having been seen by so many; she also seems modestly unaware that she is in demand. At the moment, from her small Mount Victoria workshop, she’s working on a new commission; imposing two-metre scaly fishes that will be filled with fibre-optic lights then find a home in a new Auckland restaurant.
Another commission will be fish for beneath the artistically-decorated bridge that links Civic Square and Wellington harbour. Then there’s a magnified leaf work for the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
She reckons she was selected for the Distance exhibition because of her intense involvement with her work. For months on end she can think about an idea, waiting for the right time to render it. Although in recent times her work seems to be heading in an abstract vein, she says it’s the realness that excites her.
‘I’m very interested in the scale of things in relation to people and when you study something carefully, the closer you look, the weirder it gets’, she says. In fact, so creepy that moth-phobics and weta-hating people have been visibly ill when viewing her work.’
‘Also, I think its almost the more real, the more creepy it is. For example, with the leaf work I want people to find it unnerving, as if they’re not sure what’s under foot.’
[she daylight things are happening to Elizabeth Thomson, and they’re not as creepy as she thinks.]
Pauline Swain, ‘International Profile for Art’, Dominion, 11 December 1991.
Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery launched an exhibition on Friday which is, in effect, a dummy run for Expo 92. When the work of ’10 artistas de Nueva Zelanda’ goes on show in Seville next June, organisers will have only from midnight till 8am to install it. Time will be tight, because we’re not talking about a few dozen rectangular pictures needing to be slung on picture hooks.
Distance Looks Our Way (the title comes from a 1950s Charles Brasch poem about New Zealand identity) is a mixture of styles, from sculptural constructions through three-dimensional paintings to photography.
The contemporary works range from a six-metre-long canvas by John Reynolds to a Gavin Chilcott carpet, to 100 bronze moths by Liz Thompson to a seven-metre frieze of photographed bodies by Richard Reddaway.
Tony Lane’s four semi-abstract paintings in gold leaf join James Ross’s eccentric painted shapes. There are two oval paintings by Ross’s wife, Gretchen Albrecht. Bill Hammond has painted on thick slabs of kauri as well as on wallpaper.
Jacqueline Fraser’s sculptural pieces are woven assemblages of materials like raffia, electrical wiring, and bits of plastic. Among this, all playing around with materials and shapes, Michael Stevenson of Palmerston North contributes five figurative paintings depicting small town life in New Zealand.
Luit Bieringa, who organised a European tour for the show as exhibition co-ordinator, says: ‘One has to take one’s hat off to these artists for having the foresight to think about Expo more than two years ago. No art institution in New Zealand did that.’
The exhibition has had financial and logistical assistance from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the New Zealand organisers of Expo ’92, but the idea originated with Wellington artist Tony Lane. He was in Spain in 1988, and realised what an important event for art Expo was going to be.
‘The art world in New Zealand hadn’t really thought about it. I’d never organised an exhibition overseas, so I came back and got in touch with James Ross in Auckland—he’s done shows in New York and other places.’
‘It just grew organically from there. He said he wanted Gretchen Albrecht: I said I wanted Gavin Chilcott. They suggested other people. But it was definitely done on a professional basis, they weren’t just arbitrary choices. We wanted a representative selection.’
‘I’ve been hearing lately that there are quite a few hurt feelings in the New Zealand art world, by people who were left out. That’s inevitable. It’s silly to think just one show is going to put us on the map. New Zealand artists should be participating overseas much more broadly than we are.’
‘One of the things we hope will happen is that the show will be seen by people in the European art world—dealers and gallery curators—allowing people to make on-going contacts there. This location will lend New Zealand art the kind of international profile it has never had before.’
Luit Bieringa says nobody should gripe about these artists getting off their backsides and doing something.
‘Let’s call it an introduction to New Zealand art. People should see it as opening up opportunities for them at the next stage. I’m happy to help promote further ventures. This is not a one-off effort. So often we go and throw something in the international puddle— and its a huge puddle out there—and everyone says, “Oh, wonderful”, and then forget we exist.’
This time the ground is being prepared in Madrid in February when several of the artists involved will he present at Arco, an art fair.
There the glossy 120-page catalogue for Distance Looks Our Way will be distributed. Funded by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, it contains essays by Francis Pound and Ian Wedde, and discussions about each artist’s work by art commentators.
The show will occupy Expo’s art pavilion for three weeks at the same time as exhibitions from Australia, Canada, and Portugal, then goes on tour to Madrid, Barcelona, Portugal, and Leiden in Holland, where it will be publicised as part of the Abel Tasman commemoration. Auckland and Wellington will get to see it in 1993.
For the six months of Expo, the New Zealand pavilion will display fifteen works by artists including Pat Hanly, Julian Dashper, Erenora Hetet, and Robyn Kahukiwa, as well as a pottery exhibition. Luit Bieringa says he hopes to take contemporary Maori art to Barcelona in 1994 and is already working on a curated exhibition of New Zealand art in 1994–5.
Kate Benjamin, ‘Distance Looks Our Way,’ Pacific Way, nd.
New Zealand art—historically underexposed because of the country’s distance from influential northern-hemisphere art circuits—has won a showcase position at Expo ’92.
An exhibition of Kiwi painting and sculpture will be situated in the International Pavilion of the Arts, right at the heart of the huge Expo area, next to the Cartuja Monastery which will house the Spanish royal family.
The pavilion will display some of the best contemporary art from around the world and millions are expected to visit it, including some of the world’s most influential art buyers and dealers.
‘The results in terms of foreign demand for New Zealand art could be spectacular’. enthuses Tony Lane, one of New Zealand’s exhibiting artists.
‘Expo will give New Zealand art the kind of international profile it has never had before.’
The exhibition, called Distance Looks Our Way, includes work by Wellington artists Elizabeth Thomson and Tony Lane; Auckland artists John Reynolds, James Ross, Gretchen Albrecht, and Jacqueline Fraser; Christchurch artists Gavin Chilcott, Bill Hammond, and Richard Reddaway; and Palmerston North artist Michael Stevenson.
New Zealand Expo ’92 commissioner general Ian Fraser describes the exhibition as superb: ‘It will demonstrate to a very wealthy European audience that New Zealand has a lively and sophisticated culture. Together with the shows in the New Zealand pavilion it will help move the image of this country away from un-processed, bulk produce and empty landscapes, towards an image consistent with value-added exports and tourist products we most sell in greater volumes to survive.’
The exhibition opens in Seville on 26 June, which is the day before New Zealand Day at the Expo ’92 site. It will run for three weeks, before touring Europe. On its return to New Zealand it will be exhibited at several venues including the Auckland and Wellington City art galleries.
The exhibition is backed with advice and logistical support front New Zealand Expo ’92 and will be paid for by the QEII Arts Council of New Zealand and a number of private sponsors, each to contribute $10,000.
The arts council is also funding a ninety-six-page catalogue and arranging for publicity in European art magazines leading up to Expo ’92.
Peter Shaw, ‘Lively Arts: Provoking a Cultural Encounter’, Metro, nd.
It’s well over a year now since the exhibition Distance Looks Our Way opened at the Pabellon de las Artes in Seville as part of New Zealand’s contribution to Expo ’92. Since then the collection of works by 10 New Zealand artists has been seen in the Dutch city of Leiden and in the Spanish cities of Madrid and Zamora. It opens at the Auckland City Art Gallery on 15 October.
As Francis Pound explains in his catalogue essay,’This travelling show is no more than an attempt to undo the truth of a locally famous figure of speech—a melancholy figure which proclaims that New Zealand is cut off from the rest of the world by a great unrelenting mesh of ocean.’
This figure, says Pound, ‘endlessly laments that, though we gaze, endlessly out, there is no answering gaze or that if anything does look our way it is only the blind, blank … stare of distance itself.’ According to such a notion, New Zealanders are doomed by their isolation to go it alone, to struggle for cultural uniqueness because they are irreparably cut off. Such thinking lay behind the long prolonged quest for the Great New Zealand Novel or the Real New Zealand House.
This exhibition, on the other hand, was specifically destined for overseas and New Zealand eyes: not as a provincial bleat at the outside world but rather as something confidently designed to provoke a cultural encounter. The ten artists whose work is exhibited in Distance Looks Our Way are there as individual practitioners rather than as New Zealanders—a fact brought home with great force in Seville as one watched on two separate visits foreign viewers giving close attention to Gavin Chilcott’s amphoras and cypresses and Gretchen Albrecht’s luscious lozenges.
Luit Bieringa cautions in his foreword, ‘New Zealand will not necessarily be found, discovered or even invented in this exhibition. Its parts do not make up a readily graspable whole. Of course, neither the works nor their artists are concerned with establishing an identity confined to geography or, by implication, committed to a programme of building up a national identity.’
So it was ironic to catch oneself as a New Zealander in Spain in the act of trying to detect among the exhibition’s Seville viewers a response to any lurking quintessential New Zealandness. I quickly gave up such a fruitlessly voyeuristic exercise in patriotic pride. So, too, there will be a temptation to view these works here as somehow changed by their overseas experience.
This is an exhibition very much of its time and not just by virtue of those artists it includes. This is a show organised by artists themselves and supported by private patrons. It has its origin in the efforts of Wellington-based artist Tony Lane to try to put something together to send to Expo, having heard that there was an opportunity for a New Zealand contribution.
He contacted Aucklanders Gretchen Albrecht and James Ross, who had already had experience in moving art and people to New York in the early 80s with their successful NZ/NY exhibition. Next came the crucial support of Bill Millbank of Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery and Jenny Gibbs, a member of New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s international council and someone whose motivational abilities are well known in the New Zealand art world.
It was she who was the driving force behind a trust funded by individual sponsors, each of whom contributed $10,000 in return for a work valued at $5,000 by one of the ten artists selected for the exhibition. The Arts Council agreed on a grant to support a catalogue of commissioned essays and additional funding. As a result of this setup, a major international touring exhibition now looks likely to have a final cost of under $200,000—surely a cost effectiveness to be applauded in a climate where arts must now pay for themselves or sink without trace.
Compared with Headlands, for instance, this is very much a non-curated show. It includes, among others, such very different artists as Michael Stevenson, Gretchen Albrecht, John Reynolds, Bill Hammond and Gavin Chilcott. Strange bedfellows? Not, says Jenny Gibbs, to members of the MOMA international council who commented at once upon the exhibition’s freshness of approach, its vibrancy, optimism, and lack of that world-weary cynicism which currently infects much European art.
The catalogue of Distance Looks Our Way is notable for the quality of its introductory essays by Luit Bieringa, Francis Pound, and Ian Wedde. Not all of the essays on individual artists are reader-friendly, indeed some lend themselves to parody, but most are worth persevering with for the insights they offer.
It is hardly likely that the thousands who poured through the City Gallery’s doors during the Rembrandt to Renoir show will return for Distance Looks Our Way. More’s the pity. They would see works which display equal concern with seductively painted surfaces and intriguing subject matter.
Let’s hope, too, that the initiatives displayed in the organisation of this exhibition and the value of its achievement give a clear message to those who are inclined to support arts created by New Zealanders. Even Croatia was represented in this year’s Venice Biennale. Maybe we’ll be there in 1995.
TJ McNamara, ‘International Link in Energetic Show’, Herald, 21 October 1993. Excerpt.
Seville is almost exactly on the other side of the world from Auckland.
The energy of a small group of artists ensured that New Zealand art had a presence at the 1992 Seville Expo and the show Distance Looks Our Way travelled to Madrid, Barcelona, the Netherlands, and is now seen here at the City Gallery.
What would the Spanish and the Dutch have learned from this small but very confident show? They would have learned little about New Zealand’s national identity but they may have been surprised firstly, by the quality and, secondly, by the international flavour of this work from their antipodes.
The only hint of a special ethnic origin is in Jacqueline Fraser’s work Ko Aoraki Te Maunga (‘Mt Cook Is the Mountain’) but a European viewer would find it very hard to read evidence of a Māori heritage into the work.
A New Zealand might pick up references to Māori weaving and string games and Pacific skill in binding and lashing.
The untutored eye would probably see no more than a delicately expressed wedding-bedroom piece done in the unusual material of electric cable.
More obviously, they would surely recognise the influence of medieval enamelling and the heraldic nature of Tony Lane’s sumptuously gilded paintings with rich pleasure.
The European audience might well appreciate the more astringent pleasures of John Reynolds’s big work The Impossible Embrace which is part drawing, part painting. It incorporates the chimera and sphinx from Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony.
These freakish creatures lead Anthony into a fascinated scrutiny of nature as he longs to become part of basic matter in order ‘to know what it thinks’.
The basic matter that Reynolds explores in his meandering line are the basic and mythic origins of art, design, and architecture. Gavin Chilcott’s deceptively simple works set the big vases and amphorae of the Mediterranean against a vivid Pacific sunset and their dark silhouettes become both appealing and menacing.
Yet a sunset is a sunset anywhere and as with Gretchen Albrecht’s lovely Nocturne and Pacific Annunciation, there is a universally relevant dialogue between colour and shape.
Richard Reddaway makes a modern comment on Mediterrean sculpture and architecture in his photographic Pediment. Michael Stevenson speaks of the past of small towns and the balanced, shaped abstractions of James Ross turn to European art history to borrow a strange motif from Holbein to add a note of mortality to his evocative Enigmas.
When you add to mix the urban nightmares of Bill Hammond and Elizabeth Thomson’s 100 moths cast in bronze you get an exhibition full of interest here, or in Seville. It is truly international though slightly unfashionable.
The international flavour at the gallery is reinforced by the fascinating work of Lynda Benglis, which fills three rooms on the same floor as the distance show.
This astonishing output of work was achieved by the New York sculptor during a six-week residency sponsored by the Auckland City Art Gallery and Elam School of Fine Arts.
Jane Phare, ‘Passionate Promoter’, Herald, 11 November 1993.
Jenny Gibbs wants to talk about art. New Zealand contemporary art, to be exact.
It’s her passion, her focus and she’d rather talk about that than herself.
After graduating with an MA in history from Canterbury University she lectured at Victoria before turning up in the 1970s as president of the Family Planning Association.
She led a coalition of women’s groups lobbying the Government for liberalisation of the abortion laws during the days of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.
She became a member of the Auckland University Council in 1975 and still is; she was pro-chancellor in the early 1980s.
After that she dropped from sight. Gibbs always has been a doer rather than a talker. She’s more likely to be seen out racing her Farr 38 yacht, the Jenny G, than filling up magazine society pages.
Gibbs prefers privacy, and for that reason hasn’t before invited a reporter into her Orakei home, a Mediterranean style sanctury with sweeping views of the harbour.
Public curiosity is inevitable when you’re married to a high-profile person like Alan Gibbs, chairman of Freightways Corporation and constantly listed in New Zealand’s top-ten rich list.
He’s a member of the Business Roundtable, author of the 1988 Gibbs report on health, and sits on the boards of some of the largest, most powerful companies in the country. He is known both as a shrewd, hard-nosed businessman and as a benevolent benefactor to the arts.
Gibbs invested in Sky TV because he believes New Zealand should not suffer from insularity, and bought the New Zealand licence for the BBC World Service for much the same reason.
It’s a similar belief—that New Zealand can and should hack it with the rest of the world—that drives Jenny Gibbs to constantly promote our contemporary art both here and overseas.
She talks with satisfaction about the Distance Looks Our Way exhibition on at the Auckland City Art Gallery until 21 November. Gibbs believes the exhibition, featuring the work of ten New Zealand contemporary artists, is an example of what can be done to show Kiwi talent to the rest of the world.
Distance Looks Our Way owes its origins to artists Tony Lane and James Ross who, after learning that QEII funding would go towards a major ceramics exhibition at Expo 1992 in Seville, decided to organise their own art show. The problem was funding. Enter Jenny Gibbs.
Here she understates her influence in the world of monied people. She puts it simply: ‘I went round and twisted the arms of a few people I knew.’ That bit of Gibbs arm-twisting resulted in $100,000 worth of sponsorship — ten sponsors paid $10,000 each for the ten artists. In return the artists each gave an artwork, worth roughly $5000, to their sponsor.
Here for the first time, without any institutional or gallery backing, was a self-organised group show of New Zealand Contemporary artists destined for a foreign audience.
Sure, it raised a few eyebrows among the art establishment. How could the artists curate their own show and where was the linking theme?
An Auckland Art Gallery press release describing the works as ‘richly diverse in influences’ puts it mildly. They have almost nothing in common apart from the fact that the artists are born within a decade of each other and were given a maximum of eight metres of space to work within.
Neither do they necessarily represent New Zealand’s top contemporary artists but rather a cross-section of work in progress.
Wellington artist Elizabeth Thomson covered a wall with her lifelike bronze moths; Aucklander Gavin Chilcott produced a carpet while Richard Reddaway, also of Auckland, used repeated images of a man’s body to make a seven-metre-long photographic aluminium frieze.
Palmerston North artist Michael Stevenson’s five small paintings depict small town life in New Zealand while Aucklander Jacqueline Fraser produced a mixed media installation to reflect her Māori heritage.
If Gibbs thought the collection odd when she opened the exhibition at the Sarjeant Art Gallery in Wanganui, she kept her thoughts very much to herself. Even now the most she will say is that she supported the show on the basis many others did—that here was a group of artists prepared to work hard to help themselves.
But once the collection left critical local eyes and arrived in Europe it found its niche.
‘It just took off. It was immensely popular’, Gibbs says.
Almost immediately she began to get feedback from people in the international art world.
‘People who saw the show told me that all the artists looked so fresh, so optimistic. They are sick of angst-ridden art, political art, pessimistic art.’
After Seville the exhibition showed at seven other venues, a European tour which Gibbs says could have gone on indefinately if the collection had not been due back in New Zealand.
‘Europe and America are sick of the old guard art. They are looking for what they regard as fringe art.’
As far as Gibbs is concerned, now is the time for New Zealand art in Europe and America.
‘I do believe there is an opportunity. We could have sold almost all of the pieces from Distance Looks Our Way.’
While she treads carefully with her criticism, Gibbs does say that a group show of contemporary art in Europe was long over-due and that the QEII Arts Council could and should have done more to promote our art overseas.
‘I think it is scandalous, frankly. We’ve suffered from cultural cringe. A lot of our Arts Council funding has gone into bringing big-name people here and promoting overseas artists here without demanding any sort of reciprocity.’
QEII-sponsored visits this year by Peter Weiermair, director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein and contemporary art expert, is the first sign of a ‘payback’ for the money invested. Weiermair will curate an exhibition of seven New Zealand artists which will show in Frankfurt early in 1995, the same time as the Frankfurt Book Fair.
‘Finally we are starting to get response for our investment and that show will be of major significance.’
So why does Gibbs stick her neck out in a country that tends to make cutting down tall poppies a national pastime? Why does she work at promoting New Zealand art when she could just go boating and buy pieces of contemporary art to add to the Gibbs’ already extensive private collection?
‘I do it for the same reason that makes Alan ensure New Zealand has access to the BBC or CNN news. We are passionate committed New Zealanders and we believe in getting New Zealand to join the world.’
Like many of the Gibbs’s colleagues, they could choose to live in Sydney, London, or New York. But they’ve stuck with New Zealand, a place they’ve always believed—as parents of four children—is a good environment in which to live. When the walls start to close in the Gibbs can afford to head off overseas regularly.
They’re fresh back from the United States where they attended the annual meeting of the international council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art.
The Gibbs, the only New Zealand members, are part of an exclusive worldwide group of seriously rich art collectors and connoisseurs. Members are invited to join, in exchange for dues that would make most people cough, and are usually patrons or supporters of local art galleries and museums.
Again one of Jenny Gibbs’s reasons for belonging is to promote New Zealand art; persuading members of the council to visit down-under to look at, and perhaps buy, contemporary works.
Which brings her to the reason the couple have bought the old Telecom telephone exchange building on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Sts, 50 metres down the road from the art gallery …
It has long frustrated her that the gallery has so little space in which to show its extensive collection of contemporary New Zealand art. The collection remains mostly in storage, hidden from both local and overseas visitors to the gallery.
So the Gibbs bought the building specifically to give the gallery space to exhibit contemporary art. They set up, a trust, of which Jenny is a member, which will lease the property to the gallery for a $1 annual rental.
She is adamant that this is not a temporary arrangement. The only reason the building was not simply donated is that the trust wants to keep one string attached—that the 1500 square metres of new gallery space must be used to display recent contemporary art with an emphasis on New Zealand work.
By ‘recent’ the trust has in mind a moveable date of fifty years. That means that while there will be a McCahon room in the new building to show the gallery’s McCahons, which are so rarely on show, they may eventually be moved out again once they become older than fifty years.
The Gibbs hope the building will be open by this time next year. In the meantime the trust will organise a small architectural competition for the refurbishment. The Gibbs will personally pay the fees of the winning architect.
The trust has applied to the ASB and the Lottery Grants Board for finance to cover the cost of refurbishment. Otherwise and here Gibbs grimaces—there’ll be more fundraising.
The ground floor will be rented out commercially for café and bookshop space and the gallery will get that income to cover the running costs of the building.
Gibbs does not discount the possibility that at some time in the future the gallery might not want to use the space to show contemporary art.
‘In that case the trust would have to find another entity to run the building.’
She is aware that the gesture has raised a few sceptical eyebrows in the community, people who are suspicious of the Gibbs’ “motives.”
In her direct, matter-of-fact manner Gibbs deals with those rumours.
No, the building will not be named the Gibbs Gallery; Jenny Gibbs will not try to influence the exhibitions (the shows will be art gallery curated), and no, it will not be used as public space in which air the Gibbs’s private collection.
That’s not to say the Gibbs works of art are not available. Downstairs in their gallery at home, Jenny Gibbs runs a meticulous photographic catalogue and computer system to keep track of what they own and what is currently on loan to a gallery or institution.
While Gibbs comes from three generations of art lovers she well remembers the year she and Alan were converted to contemporary art. In 1961 they were newly married, just-graduated university students wanting to see the world. They took one of those long, slow, cheap trips to Europe down on the lower deck of a cruise ship.
When they arrived in Paris they accidentally wandered into an exhibition by French painter George Mathieu.
‘We walked into this show and were absolutely blown away. It was a real conversion and after that we went out of our way on our travels to look at contemporary art.’
As it happens, the Gibbs’art taste developed to favour more purist, minimalist art. Nevertheless, they plan to buy a Mathieu painting, for sentimental reasons, when one comes up for sale in Europe.
The first painting they bought was a Richard Killeen back in the late 60s. The Gibbs never intended to be serious collectors. They bought art to hang on their walls at home and when they ran out of space and had to store the overflow they realised they must be collectors. They decided to collect at least one major work of every significant New Zealand contemporary artist.
Since then they have graduated towards certain artists, buying considerable amounts of their work.
Jenny Gibbs does most of the buying but says fortunately she and her husband have similar taste in contemporary art. She buys mostly on a gut reaction.
‘I’m probably known among art dealers as an instantaneous decision-maker. But on the other hand I sometimes agonise and sometimes a particular painting lingers in my mind. One image will keep recurring and then I know that’s the one I ought to buy.’
Gibbs insists that their ‘very large’ collection was not bought as an investment.
‘We’ve never sold a work of art in our lives. We buy things that we love.’
She gets ‘huge enjoyment’ from the artworks hung throughout the home, a selection which is changed every two or three months.
Not that she has much time to sit around either gazing at the artwork or at the view outside. Sitting in a pile on the dining room table, looking incongruous in the modem, uncluttered design of the house is a pile of Auckland Medical School applications.
Gibbs has been on the admissions committee for years and this time has two days in which to make herself familiar with the applications before helping to interview face-to-face.
The dining room table represents the overflow from Gibbs’ study which she admits is knee deep in paperwork—everything from university council business to agendas for the patrons of Auckland City Art Gallery, of which she is chairwoman.
‘Like all women who don’t have a paid job, everybody assumes I’ve got lots of spare time. The days when I was a paid lecturer were much simpler.’