Opinion: More to art collections than meets the eye

Opinion: More to art collections than meets the eye

An art gallery is a theatre where art takes centre stage. But it is also an archive, a refuge, even a hospital, says Te Papa’s Head of Art Charlotte Davy.

A recent story highlighted the art collections held by Councils and the proportion of their art works on public display.

Every art collection is different. The art comes from different places, it serves different purposes, and it tells different stories. So everyone who cares for a collection will manage it in their own way.

But one thing is true of virtually every art collection in the world: only a fraction of the art works will be on display at any time. And that’s ok.

Exhibiting art for people to see, up close and personal, is a vital focus for most art collections.

Standing before a painting, walking around a sculpture, immersing yourself in an installation: seeing art is a powerful, personal experience. And sharing art with the public is what excites those of us lucky enough to work in the field.

But there is far more to an art collection than simply displaying works.

Yes, an art gallery is a theatre where art takes centre stage. But it is also an archive, a refuge, even a hospital. It is where our artistic heritage can be studied, protected and cared for.

You might be surprised by the busy lives of artworks that aren’t on the walls of a gallery.

They are pored over by students who analyse artistic influences, and specialists who measure the gases they emit. They are examined with UV lights and painstakingly cleaned with tiny brushes.

They may be on loan to other galleries, or helping international experts study everything from the dress of Pacific peoples to the botany of ancient China.

When you pay attention, these art works have so many stories to tell.

And as kaitiaki or caretakers of these treasures, we aren’t just thinking about the visitor of today, but the visitor in 50, 100, 500 years’ time. It’s our job to ensure that these unique and often fragile works can be seen by future generations.

For practical reasons, there are many works which can only be displayed for short periods, and even some which can’t be shown at all. Visitors to Te Papa’s storage facility during our open day were able to see a stunning feather headdress which cannot be displayed – prolonged exposure to light would see it crumble to a dust. Tens of thousands of photographic plates in the collection can’t be exposed to daylight, and must be stored in highly specialised facilities.

Any art collection must strike the right balance between displaying and protecting the works it cares for.

As well as being a storehouse of treasures, an art collection is a jumping off point. These days, digitised artworks reach audiences in new places: on their phone, their iPad, or printed out and stuck to the fridge.

Many of the works in Te Papa’s collection are available for free high-resolution download, and it is always fascinating to see how they are used.

Mount Rolleston, circa 1893, Christchurch, by Petrus van der Velden. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa (1936-0012-116)

Someone recently downloaded this moody 1893 painting: Mount Rolleston by Petrus Van der Velden, giving as their reason:

His dramatic contrasts in the Otira and West coast paintings give me inspiration for dramatic charcoal drawings that my students can be inspired to try i.e. ‘After Van der Velden’ Plus I visit Otira via West Coast most years for the reasons Petrus loved – the wildness!

That is an art work, not currently on display, which is connecting in a very real way with its audience.

Te Papa is embarking on a major extension of its art gallery, opening in December. With 35% more floor area, and a huge double-height space, we will be able to display the national art collection in exciting new ways, including showing large sculptural works which have never been displayed before at Te Papa.

We’ll also be bringing art to people in new ways outside the gallery walls, with an array of books, rich digital content, and ways for people to experience art on their own terms.

It’s going to be amazing to be able to bring out an even wider range of works from the collection, and host touring exhibitions of the best the world has to offer.
And behind the scenes, we will continue to care for and share New Zealand’s art, to write about it, talk about it, and find new ways to make it sing.

Te Papa’s current art exhibitions close on Feb 25. The new Te Papa art gallery opens in December.

This blog post originally appeared on Stuff.co.nz.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyable, thoughtful piece thanks.

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