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September 12, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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The Pick of the Bunch

The title may read Auckland Art Gallery but New Zealand finally has a national art gallery.

With the re-opening of the Auckland Art Gallery to the public on the 3rd of September 2011, a national institution that meets global standards has been introduced to our cultural environment. This bold statement may cause some disagreement within the art world and beyond. After all, our national collection officially comes under the banner of Te Papa. We have other great regional galleries, museums and other collections that showcase our heritage and history of art. However, the AAG is unquestionably the largest and most significant collection of art to be on display in New Zealand. This is not just a question of quantity either. The AAG presents jewels of New Zealand art in a building that can only be described as spectacular, but also showcases these pieces in a way that had the crowds at the opening night buzzing right until 10pm.

It is not every day that you are greeted at the door by a director of such an institution but I was lucky enough to be handed the gallery catalogue by none other than Chris Saines. Other members of the crowd passed him oblivious to the contribution that this man has made to the project that started over eight years ago. The gallery has increased its display capabilities by at least 50 per cent. In the past it was only able to display 3 to 4 per cent of its collection of over 15,000 items and was forced to turn down large exhibitions. The opening also provides a sneak-peek of the astronomical gift that the gallery will receive from Julian and Josie Robertson, which will be the largest ever made to an art gallery in Australasia. The collection will be on show for eight weeks and will not be seen again in the gallery until the gift is finally given under the deeds of the will agreement. The professional security guards that occupy the rooms of the Robertson collection are a clear indicator to the public of the significance of the works that they are about to inherit.
For that is what the minds behind the huge renovation want the public to understand. This is their gallery, their space, their heritage. They want to contribute to the cultural development of New Zealand, encourage curatorial excellence and maintain an international standard. However they also want to engage the audience and invite those who are intimidated by the art world and all the elitist attitudes that have traditionally gone along with such an institution, to feel welcome in this building, to ask questions and connect with the art works.

If opening night is any indication, this goal is achievable in the new space. The place was packed all day long and was a hive of activity. Music constantly wove in and out of different rooms, from a string quartet in the Victorian room to a jazz band wafting down the main atrium. This perfectly accompanied the clear crowd favourite, the installation that dominates the forefront of the building, a sculpture by Choi Jeong Hwa titled Flower Chandelier, 2011 which was commissioned for the space. The chandelier is made up of magnificent flowers that come alive in all their falsity, as the bright colourful fabric and metal rustle while the blooms open and close. It is really something that needs to be seen, and the postcard I picked up in the gift shop does not do it justice.

Colin McCahon was slightly over-represented, something to be expected in a New Zealand institution that once employed the infamous artist. The more traditional pieces in the collection, largely seen in the Victorian rooms and the upper galleries, pale in comparison to the modern collections but again that may just be a matter of taste. The majority of the works that were gifted by the Robertsons did not blow me away, other than in their impressive price tag and journey that they took to New Zealand in a private jet. These are really minor criticisms and I am scraping the barrel to find them. I’m sure that a great amount will be said about the re-opening, at least amongst academics, and more criticisms will be found and the missed possibilities for this space will be discussed at great length. Nevertheless, I was absolutely blown away by this re-opening. It is a treasure trove to be explored and truly something to be proud of. Blooming fantastic, one might say.

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