Auckland Art Gallery

Okay, here’s the problem, see? Te Papa has a huge collection of valuable art, and no permanent place to display it. Most of their collection is in storage, which is either a huge shame or a minor crime, depending on how you feel about New Zealand’s cultural heritage. The City Gallery holds several fine exhibitions a year, but it isn’t large enough for permanent exhibitions. Wellington has contended for years that it deserves a large and costly national art gallery to display the nation’s treasures properly.

The new Auckland Art Gallery is the art gallery that Wellington has always thought it deserved.

The renovated galleries are beautiful and airy with wooden vaulted ceilings. The expansions marry to the historic older building sympathetically, with a detailed history of the renovations in one of the long galleries, and the occasional transparent section allowing you to see an original fixture.

The North Atrium is currently occupied by Choi Jeong Hwa’s Flower Chandelier, a fun inflatable monstrosity that even Jeff Koons would find kitsch. Although this space is huge, they seem to have missed a trick by not extending it down another level – the street entrance underneath is cramped and low-ceilinged, with an awkward bag check, and a floor slick from the inevitable Auckland rain.

Also unfortunate is the contents of the first gallery you walk into from the entrance, the contemporary art section of Toi Aotearoa, a major exhibition of New Zealand art from its beginnings to the present which fills six huge rooms. Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Rita Angus, there’s something from each of the greats. The new stuff is very poor compared to the rest, and suggests that contemporary art is threadbare of craft and inspiration, which isn’t a good first impression.

Best to start at the very top, with an exceptional exhibition of the work of John Pule. His huge unframed canvases can be inspected closely (rather too closely, I thought, when I noticed some small children leaning against them) and his prints examined in detail.

They’re prints! Not comics! 18 pages of illustrations accompanied by text has nothing to do with comics! Don’t even suggest it!

Downstairs in the international historic art galleries there’s a exhibition called British and French Modernism: Defying Conventions which contains minor but fascinating works by Picasso, Henry Moore and Dali. This leads to a collection of recently discovered work by Frances Hodgkins. The same level has a pop art exhibition (called, annoyingly, Whiz Bang Pop) with work by Bridget Riley and Luc Peire. There’s a Len Lye kinetic sculpture down the hall. This place is an embarrassment of riches. I was particularly pleased to be able to examine Pieter Brueghel’s A Village Fair up close, as well as James Tissot’s intricate etching Octobre.

After spending six hours over three days I’d only seen about three-quarters of the collection, but there’s lots of guides available so you can skip the bits you’re not interested in. These are written in a breathlessly enthusiastic style which might make you wince if you’re already an art lover whose enthusiasm doesn’t need to be engaged – it points out that Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from the ‘Rock Drill’ (1913-16) “predates Star Wars’ battle droids and was created long before Sigourney Weaver was chased around her spaceship in the Alien series”, which is good to know if you were worried that Epstein had spooky precognitive powers, or that there was anything original about The Phantom Menace.

The marketing squad, after an intensive brainstorming session, discovered that the word “art” has three letters in it, and by massive coincidence also appeared in the name of the gallery (after the “Auckland” and before the “Gallery”), and as a result all signage and promotional material is emblazoned with labels incorporating three words which have a red A, R and T buried in them – the sculpture terrace is promoted as A Sculpture Terrace, the What’s On pamphlet is subtitled A Curious Visit and undoubtedly the toilets would’ve been labelled Anus Relief Time if the Fanta hadn’t worn off at that point and common sense kicked back in.

Overall this is a magnificent set of buildings, and I hope that eventually Aucklanders realize what a gem it is and start visiting, and Wellington doesn’t squeal too loudly when it realizes what it’s missed.

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