When the decision was made to curtail the Art Gallery renewal project, the three branches of Te Manawa that create exhibitions knew something special would be required of them. The April 2019 reopening was out the window. Instead, the collections, production and design teams would have not even forty days to assemble five finished galleries from the ground up.
It’s quite unusual for Te Manawa to have the managers of these three teams working so closely together, but extraordinary circumstances demand measures in kind. Bringing to bear their many years of experience, and with displaying the Te Manawa collection foremost in mind, in a short time they found the way forward.
“It’s a bit outside the box,” says designer Rohan Kidd. “When someone says ‘art gallery’ you perhaps don’t picture exactly what experience we have in store for you
Let’s take a look at what they came up with.
Gallery 1 is Te Manawa’s largest. That’s a clue to how the team approached it.
“Bigger is better. It’s filled predominantly with the largest works in our collection,” says production manager Graeme Slimin. “Some have never been seen by staff.”
The giant unframed canvas Kai Karanga, by Robyn Kahukiwa, is one of those unseen works. A long period in storage created an extra incentive to finally get it on display, and collections manager Toni Edmeades was delighted to see it unrolled for the first time, in perfect condition, unaffected by its years out of the public eye.
In Gallery 2, the team wanted to blur the lines between display and storage. Between floor and rafters stand two giant metal racks.
“They mimic in every way the racks I have in my painting store,” says Toni. The twenty-four racks out the back store about 350 glazed and unglazed works. The aim is to cycle those works out through the racks in the gallery. With a seasonal change, all the works will have been displayed after two years.
“The racks themselves become sculptural items.”
It’s in this gallery that Te Manawa has deployed some new digital technology. The way the works are displayed – in the centre of the gallery rather than the edges – means traditional labels are impractical. Now visitors can stand at a tablet and pick a work, zoom in on a high-resolution photo of it, and learn more about it.
The heart of the building is Gallery 3. This is where visitors can pause and take stock before moving on. There’s comfy seating available, and some distractions for the young and young-at-heart. Here too can be found unusual works from the collection, like Anton Parsons’ giant pencils and David Pearce’s Untitled.
For the latter work, Rohan created a digital “deep dive” that lets visitors explore the many symbols it contains.
“Everybody that’s walked past it has a different interpretation of it,” he says.
The walls of Gallery 4 are illuminated by constantly changing projections of digitised works on paper. There are more than 1300 such works in the collection, but the practical issues of exhibiting unframed pieces of paper mean they often get left in their drawers.
However, photographer David Lupton has been working with Toni to photograph these works, allowing Te Manawa to easily display them in a way that completely surrounds the viewer.
“They’re easy to pass over, and they’re really hard to do justice to, but when you see them blown up to such great proportions it really makes you appreciate the art in a new way,” says Toni. “The immersive environment really complements and extends our collection. It’s looking at the collection in a different way, and almost creating a new work out of it.”
The exhibition lacks actual objects, so to increase the physicality of the space, the team installed what were quickly dubbed “weeble chairs”. Make sure to take them for a spin when you visit!
Upstairs in Gallery 5 the team has kept the floor clear for events, while lining the walls with another kind of work that doesn’t get exhibited that often: photography. In a nice dovetail with this year’s 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, all the displayed work is by women photographers.
The race to get everything working perfectly was long and urgent, and there’s little time to relax before planning new exhibitions. The team is tired but happy.
“There’ve been a lot of fun moments in the process of getting to the finish line,” says Rohan. “We’re really proud of it!”