THE $35 MILLION GALLERY
When Greg Anderson moved from Auckland to Whanganui 10 years ago, it was to take his first museum directorship, at the Sarjeant Gallery. But for much of his time there, he’s been more fundraiser and construction manager than curator. That’s because the Sarjeant’s heritage-listed building in Queen’s Park is, frankly, falling down. The neoclassical building looks as much mausoleum as museum from the outside. Inside, though, it has always been one of the more elegant and interesting exhibition spaces in the country, a series of small galleries flanking a central axis, which unfolds under a central dome into a big, open space. Billy Apple famously transformed this in 1979 by removing a sculpture of Greek wrestlers that had taken pride of place for decades; a conceptual act that horrified locals. Since then, the dome space has been a prime location for site-specific sculpture, with works by Christine Hellyar, Maureen Lander, Andrew Drummond, Joanna Langford, Bill Culbert, and many more. The trouble is, Anderson explains when we meet there, all that time the building was eating itself – water ingress was chewing into the gallery’s structural elements. After a giant chunk of ceiling fell out (thankfully, in the middle of the night when no one was there), investigations revealed just how bad
the damage was. And it turned out the gallery was only up to five percent of the new earthquake regulations. It is, Anderson says dryly, as he opens a trap door in the gallery’s basement to show me, “a building with incredibly flimsy foundations, sitting on a sand hill.” It’s amazing it has survived this long. The Sarjeant closed to the public in 2014, but has a temporary space on Taupo Quay to keep the exhibitions programme going. In just three years, Anderson and the gallery’s Trust have raised $32 million: a combination of lotteries and council funding, $10 million from the government, and another $11 million from private sources. The transformation is being carried out by Warren and Mahoney, and involves restoring the historic building, putting it on 90 base isolators and building a completely new wing – which will have purpose-built storage for the Sarjeant’s 8000-work collection, as well as new exhibition and education spaces. This will double the Sarjeant’s size. To make it all happen, the gallery needs to raise another $3 million by the end of the year, and Anderson is confident they’ll get there. Part of the idea is that the Sarjeant could become a crucial stop on an art trail of the lower North Island, one that runs from Wellington to the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, with stop-offs at Whanganui and Te Manawa in Palmerston North. It’s a big roll of the dice by Whanganui Council, which is clearly hoping for the kind of ‘Bilbao’ bounce New Plymouth has experienced since the Lye building opened. It’s also essential to protect one of the country’s most eccentric but vital collections. Whanganui has been a rich place in the past, and the Sarjeant’s collection reflects that: amid giant Sevres vases and Medici furniture, it has Goldies and Lindauers, some frankly kick-arse Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters paintings, and a smattering of outstanding contemporary art. The new building will also put it back on the map for the contemporary art scene, as a genuine player capable of staging nationally significant exhibitions again.
5. Inside the heritage-listed Sarjeant Gallery. In 1979, Billy Apple removed a sculpture that sat beneath the dome, an act which caused public outcry. 6. A fish-and-chip dining room on the main drag has a photograph of the Sarjeant Gallery on the wall. 7 and 8. Work in progress at the Sarjeant Gallery. 9. The collection on Paul McNamara’s wall includes work by Laurence Aberhart.