THE $35 MIL­LION GALLERY

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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.

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