Art of re­straint

Di­rec­tor Rhana Deven­port is leav­ing Auck­land Art Gallery in good shape, but it’s been a bruis­ing five-year ten­ure.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By DIANA WICH­TEL

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.

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