Art of restraint
Director Rhana Devenport is leaving Auckland Art Gallery in good shape, but it’s been a bruising five-year tenure.
The apartment is sold. The movers arrive on Monday. When we meet at her Auckland Art Gallery office, it’s about a month until Rhana Devenport, director of the gallery since 2013, leaves to lead the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. On the road again. “I think the average is about 2.6 places that people move with work and this will be …”
She has to stop and count. “Three, four, five – this will be my fifth since I left Queensland.”
She would be quite a show to get on the road. “I love books,” she says a little mournfully, indicating the shelves waiting to be packed. There’s her famously eclectic, stylish wardrobe. I don’t ask who she’s wearing today, but she has an important philanthropist to meet after me, so she’s looking particularly eclectically elegant and not at all like she’s 57.
She left Queensland in 2004. Before that she was senior project officer with the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery. “I moved, you know, for love.” Her husband is artist Tim Gruchy. He was living in Sydney. Leaving Queensland – she was born in Brisbane – was a wrench. “I couldn’t imagine living without that project. I was a little too attached, so it was great to be seduced out of there by my husband.” She freelanced for a time in Australia and did a stint as curator in residence at Auckland’s Artspace gallery. Then followed seven years as director of Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth before the move to Auckland. It’s lucky she married an artist who is portable. “I’d highly recommend it. He can work anywhere.” The smart, monolithic, interactive art work Scout, in Britomart’s Takutai Square, is his.
The move to Adelaide is less about love and more, you imagine, about money.
Not salary, but funding. Auckland Art Gal- lery’s operating budget was progressively cut from $12 million in 2012 to $6.9 million. It didn’t cover wages. There was talk of the doors having to close one or two days a week. A $20 admission fee for overseas visitors was instituted. “Why is Auckland slowly strangling its art gallery?” read a headline.
The crisis inspired the Save Our Gallery campaign; among its founders were arts patron Dame Jenny Gibbs and Chartwell Trust’s Sue Gardiner. Supporters took “pART of me” selfies, signed a supporters’ scroll and generally made a ruckus. In February, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff announced $20 million for the gallery in the council’s 10-year budget, around $2 million extra a year.
Devenport is talking an upbeat game about leaving the gallery in good shape. “With being able to negotiate the increase in funding and knowing we’re on a good platform moving forward, there’s such a sense of momentum about the future.”
But she must feel a bit disgruntled about what must have been a bruising and distracting battle. “No, no time for that,” she says briskly. But she feels for the team, whose praises she endlessly sings. “They’ve worked very hard and they’re tired. We’ve been so focused on survival, securing the funding, delivering what exists.” Staff have left, including principal curator Zara Stanhope, now at Queensland Art Gallery.
The announcement of Devenport’s departure was marked by a letter to the New Zealand Herald from Jenny Gibbs. The news was “saddening but not surprising”, she wrote. “Rhana was at times treated with total lack of respect by some of the council and its associated organisations … I find it absolutely shameful that Auckland, the gateway to New Zealand and our largest city, so little values the gallery at the heart of our arts and culture sector.”
Gibbs sounded furious. “Oh, look, it has been tough and she knows more than anybody,” Devenport says. “[Gibbs] is a very observant, intelligent woman who is one of this country’s greatest philanthropists. And I would say the value of
“I would say the value of this gallery and the value of culture in Auckland have been neglected.”
this gallery and the value of culture in Auckland have been neglected. So she can say things that other people can’t. Good on her.”
Funding crisis aside, Devenport has been credited with building the gallery. Visitor numbers are up. The Gottfried Lindauer exhibition drew 99,000 people and has toured overseas. The Body Laid Bare exhibition showcased 100 artworks from the Tate. She curated Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries, with its remarkable video installation, in Pursuit of Venus [infected], for the 2017 Venice Biennale.
There have been Asian acquisitions, “because the art’s fantastic and I think it’s important to define ourselves that way, reflecting our demographic”. Art is political; there’s always contention over the canon. “All those dead white men, yup.” Devenport has done her bit in that regard. “We’re working on a very big Māori contemporary show.” And the gallery has bought the entire archive of feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls, whose work featured in The Body Laid Bare.
The gallery, she likes to say, is “a safe place for unsafe ideas”. There’s a Gordon Walters exhibition on. “He’s a pioneer of modernism in New Zealand and not uncontentious with how, in his time, he looked at Māori material. We’re doing a symposium in November. It’s not something to be avoided.”
She’s still saying “we”. Before she decided to leave, she and Gruchy had been thinking of building a house here. “In Taranaki, we lived in a cow paddock for seven years and built a garden. We’re at that point in life, before it gets too late, to go through the process of building a house – because I’m a little bit interested in architecture.”
A little. Her father was a Brisbane architect. One of her brothers is an architect. “My husband studied architecture so …” She tells a story about a school talk she did, as a 10-year-old, on a work by Michelangelo. “I did a very detailed presentation and redrew the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling.”
That kind of precocity can be a bit tough for a child. She has another story. “I’ve never talked about this, actually. I was accused of cheating at a young age because I did terribly well in a test.” She was 11. The accuser was her friend. It was a bruising experience, but it didn’t slow her down. “I was pretty defiant.” You suspect you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her, even at 11.
There won’t be a house now, not here, but she has been able to indulge her love of architecture. At Govett-Brewster, which kinetic artist Len Lye called “the swingiest art gallery in the Antipodes”, she oversaw the planning of the very swingy Len Lye Centre. Its undulating, mirrored surface has made it a cultural destination and selfie magnet.
“It’s such an extraordinary building, and then to lead this magnificent building …” The new extension and the refurbishment of the Auckland Art Gallery was, in 2013, judged World Building of the Year. They are, she says, the best two civic buildings in the country. “By far. There’s not a lot of great civic architecture in New Zealand because there hasn’t been the money, or the will.” Tell us about it. “It is possible with a small budget. It’s just about the ambition and the sophistication of thinking and the rigour of the process,” she says. “The will to create something extraordinary.”
There have been criticisms that there’s not enough Len Lye work in the Len Lye Centre. “Yeah, and I think there’s definitely a settling-in process.” It’s the same with the Auckland Art Gallery. “I still don’t think this building is fully realised.” She’s talking about the liminal spaces: the reflection pool, the atriums, the terraces. “It’s actually quite challenging and quite expensive to fill because there are so many demands to do with health and safety, security, engineering and resource consent. Scaffolding: $2000 a day.”
It can be done. Jeppe Hein’s trippy park benches, now at Waitematā Plaza, graced the back terrace for three years. She cites Judy Millar’s Rock Drop, activating the
“There’s not a lot of great civic architecture in New Zealand because there hasn’t been the money, or the will.”
heck out of the south atrium. As for the relationship with Albert Park, there was Jonathan Jones’ neon project and John Ward Knox’s spider webs reaching into the park. “These things require a lot of permissions and we’re not afraid of that. It just takes time. That’s one thing, thinking about it, where I don’t think I have achieved as much as I would have liked.” Now, forward planning is possible. “I know exactly what needs to happen and obviously the next director will be able to do that, because I’ve now set the platforms in place.”
So what would it have taken to make her stay? “Ha. Hmm.” She’s briefly at a loss for diplomatic words. “Two years ago, I was thinking about the ambitions of what might be possible and then, basically, we had to go into consolidation and a process of securing base funding. Looking after staff, not letting our standards drop but making very clear that this is not working and that the process needs to change. People need to be aware. So the last two years have been tough.”
The funding still doesn’t sound great. “It’s absolutely not great. And I’m very grateful to the council,” she says dutifully. “It’s still not enough.”
There’s the question of her replacement. In her letter, Gibbs warned that as the gallery seems so little valued, finding a director of similar stature will be difficult, “if not impossible”. Other people can say that. Devenport is relentlessly positive: “I have every faith that it’s going to be an excellent process and that some outstanding people are going to apply.”
She’s going to a country that offers the luxury of such art experiences as millionaire David Walsh’s eccentric, subversive Mona (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart, Tasmania, a place of no rules, obsessed with sex and death. People either hate it or find it’s a religious experience.
“It is a religious experience. Mona has absolutely shifted the state of how museums exist in Australasia.” This sets her off on some art speak about “pulp formative dimensionality”.
Adelaide, more conventional, brings fresh challenges. She will be the first woman to lead the gallery. There’s a planned new arts and cultural centre; it’s still unclear whether the building will be devoted entirely to indigenous art. “There’s no question that a new space is needed for the visual and other arts in Adelaide, so that will be my task, to shape what that might be.” So no slowing down then? “Nah. There’s a lot to be done.”
At the opening of the Walters Prize exhibition, Devenport, in a spangled skirt that mirrors the tinselled and high-tech work of some of the prize’s finalists, pops over to add a single word to our conversation about those tough two years. “Security.” No doubt that’s what was needed to make her, or anyone in such a demanding role, stay.
It’s her last big event and serves as a sort of farewell. In her speech, surveying the packed atrium, she says, “By the look of the 600 people in this room, I think art matters.” She has a last laugh at her efforts to fit in with the locals: “Simon Wilson, in his little article in the Herald, talked about my hopeless te reo and my buzzsaw Aussie twang. He’s so right. But it doesn’t stop me from trying.”
The accent is, in a way, an asset. She deploys corporate speak – “platforms going forward” – without sounding up herself. She has, in fact, absorbed an impressive amount of Aussie-inflected te reo and a lot more in her time here.
“I’ll remain a devotee of New Zealand art for life,” she says. We’ll have a good ambassador across the ditch. “Absolutely. There’s such tremendous interest in New Zealand art and culture from Australia; the visual arts are held in very high regard internationally; this gallery is held in incredibly high regard. Those things you carry with you. One never leaves that.”
“There’s tremendous interest in New Zealand visual arts internationally; this gallery is held in incredibly high regard.”
From far left: The art gallery extension won a global architecture award; 99,000 people attended the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition; Judy Millar’s Rock Drop in the south atrium.