It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of Luit Bieringa on 21 June.
Bieringa was director of the National Art Gallery from 1979 to 1989, an institution that merged with the National Museum to form what is now Te Papa. His story is embedded in the history of Te Papa – and indeed in the history of art in New Zealand. And the art works he and his staff acquired that are in our collection are a legacy he left for future generations.
Manawatu Art Gallery
Luit Bieringa cut his teeth as a director running the Manawatu Art Gallery (now part of Te Manawa) in Palmerston North. He came to the position armed with New Zealand’s first master’s degree in art history (on Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon) and a circle of contacts in the Auckland art world that he immediately exploited for exhibitions and acquisitions.
Bieringa discovered that ‘You could do some quite radical things – [the sort] that were perceived as important in the wider world – but at the same time there was a need to balance this out by being in touch with the community.’
Some of the exhibitions that put the small provincial gallery on the national map were M.T. Woollaston: Works 1933–1973, a 1973 review (the first ever) of Woollaston’s work, and Colin McCahon: ‘Religious’ works 1946–1952 in 1975. Both exhibitions were accompanied by publications and toured to other venues.
Also in 1975 was The Active Eye, the first review of the emerging field of contemporary New Zealand photography. Bieringa was onto photography at a time when most other public galleries hadn’t yet made up their mind whether it was an art. Again, the exhibition had a publication and was seen around New Zealand. It remains a key moment in the history of contemporary New Zealand photographic practice.
Art in the Mail was a 1976 exhibition curated by Nicholas Spill consisting of ‘mail art’ sent in by artists from all over the world. It claimed to be the largest exhibition of international art ever held in New Zealand (by number of works) and toured all over the country.
As Bieringa was producing these exhibitions (and a further 25 to 30 others per year with just one or two staff) he was also campaigning for a new gallery building. The existing one was simply a wooden hall built onto a house. It leaked badly, was cold in winter and hot in summer and was away from the city centre. Bieringa worked tirelessly to create a local presence for the gallery by being in the media as much as possible and running outreach events. His approach of creating both local and national profiles paid off in 1977 with a new building paid for by the government, city council and community fundraising.
The new gallery was a self-effacing building that broke with tradition. It aimed to put the art display ahead of the architecture and be ‘a place where people can freely talk, laugh and be themselves without the feeling they are enveloped in the sacred atmosphere of galleries of a previous era’.
National Art Gallery
It was undoubtedly on the back of his success in Palmerston North that Bieringa was appointed director of the National Art Gallery in October 1979. The institution was in dire need of a shake-up. Its funding was pitifully small – less than any other metropolitan public gallery and even some provincial ones.
The government itself recognised the problem and called for a report on an entirely new National Art Gallery in 1980. In September 1983 cabinet approved building a new gallery on Molesworth St as a 1990 sesquicentennial project. Increased money for staff slowly materialised too, and Bieringa’s work in the early 1980s revolved around planning for a new building while professionalising how the existing gallery was run.
Much of the art collection was uncatalogued and unprovenanced and so collection research and catch-up cataloguing became a major back-of-house activity at the gallery in the first half of the 1980s. In hand with this was air conditioning the exhibition and storage areas and turning some of the galleries over to collection storage and workspaces.
Collecting also proceeded apace under Bieringa. For the first time, in 1982, there was regular government funding for purchases. Key emphases of his tenure were photography, including American photography, international works on paper and recent New Zealand art. After decades of collecting mostly British art there was a yawning gap on the New Zealand front. Works by artists such as Milan Mrkusich, Gordon Walters, Don Driver, Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon were added, creating a collection strength in post-WWII art that remains to this day.
Catching up was also enabled by exhibitions, with the 1982 Rita Angus show a good example. It was the first survey to date of her work and accompanied by an extensive catalogue.
Photography featured large at the National Art Gallery under Bieringa. He followed The Active Eye with a more targeted investigation into contemporary New Zealand photography with Views/Exposures: 10 contemporary photographers, curated by Peter Ireland in 1982. And the 1984 exhibition Working Men by Glenn Bush accompanied a beautifully edited and produced publication that remains a classic of New Zealand photography.
In 1985, following the election of the Labour government and lobbying by the judiciary for a new High Court to occupy the Molesworth Street site, the new gallery building project was canned. Now the government requested a report on a ‘Pacific cultural centre’ including the National Art Gallery and ‘relevant parts’ of the National Museum. The initial concepts were for a suite of museums but they eventually coalesced into the single entity that is now Te Papa.
Bieringa’s attention, however, shifted to an outreach version of the National Art Gallery on the waterfront in Shed 11 (now home to the NZ Portrait Gallery). This made up for the reduced exhibition space at the main building and its isolated position on the hill above Buckle Street. At the same time, the former police barracks building on Buckle Street was turned over to a research centre, library and archive to make the gallery’s resources more publicly available.
Shed 11 opened in May 1986 and went on to show some of the best contemporary art exhibitions in Wellington in the 1980s. Bieringa himself curated the massive Content / Context: A survey of recent New Zealand Art of 1986. Then there were the imported exhibitions of Wild Visionary Spectral: New German Art (1986), Barbara Kruger (1988), and Cindy Sherman (1989). And work by Para Matchitt, Ralph Hotere and Selwyn Muru in Taki Toru: Three Māori Artists wowed audiences in 1988.
By 1989, high-level work was progressing at some pace to create a combined National Art Gallery and National Museum (to become Te Papa). But Bieringa was resistant to what he saw as the dissolution of a national art institution and publicly criticised the project. The board of trustees then took the extraordinary step of terminating his position.
Life for Bieringa after the National Art Gallery began with setting himself up to continue his activities in brokering and pulling together touring exhibitions, including Magnum Pictures, Postal Impressions: Treasures from New Zealand Post Collections (1990) and Handboek: Ans Westra photographs (with a substantial catalogue, 2004). He also purchased a three-story warehouse building in the former vegetable and fruit market area of Blair and Allen St in 1996 and refurbished it to house commercial tenants and build a small suite of apartments on the roof.
Then, in the 2000s Bieringa went onto a second career as a film director in partnership with his wife Jan as producer, beginning in 2006 with Ans Westra – Private Journeys / Public Signposts, a documentary about the photographer Ans Westra.
Further films were:
- The Man in the Hat (2009), about Wellington dealer gallery owner Peter McLeavey
- The HeART of the Matter (2016), on the bicultural, arts-centred educational system of post-war New Zealand led by Gordon Tovey
- Signed – Theo Schoon (2021), a portrait of Dutch immigrant artist Theo Schoon
In summary, Bieringa was an art activist. He considered his values came from his 1960s education and the alternative culture movement of the time: ‘You had to really believe in this stuff, and the role art had to play in society. If you are enthusiastic, the enthusiasm rubs off. If not, then you are only selling a product… With missionary zeal, God you can make mistakes, but I’d rather make exciting mistakes than dull ones.’
Former National Art Gallery staff recall working with Bieringa
Louise Pether, Exhibitions Officer (1979–1987)
It was like a whirlwind when Luit arrived. He immediately started introducing a flurry of improvements to ignite and professionalise the gallery. Quite quickly more staff were appointed to join our tiny group. And later Luit commandeered nearby buildings to support new activities – the old police barracks became an archive and library, an army building on the Taranaki Street corner became the conservation studio, workshop and storage. A roll-out of exciting projects began – continuing and expanding artist projects, plans for quick changing collections shows, then progressing into ‘blockbuster’ territory starting with America and Europe: A Century of Modern Masters from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in 1980.
But for me possibly the most profound move was inviting Para Matchitt to create a massive artist’s project to coincide with Te Maori exhibited downstairs in the National Museum in 1986. In the huge art gallery entrance hall his Huakina (to rise up) was installed with the massive timber flag Te Wepu (the whip) and three other pieces representing a fortified pā.
What a discovery it was for those thousands of young Māori, brought to Wellington for a school visit to see the great objects in Te Maori, and be confronted by a thrilling and amazing installation by a Māori contemporary artist. I loved that at the opening fish and chips were served, not cheese and biscuits. Recorded in Eruera Nia’s video of Huakina is a conversation between Luit and Para discussing, and committing to, a schedule of exhibitions at Shed 11, giving space to contemporary Māori art in performance such as Ko Te Kimihanga (1987) and exhibitions like Taki Toru. An electric moment in New Zealand’s bi-cultural progress.
Friday night after-work drinks were generally hosted at the Bieringa’s place, as were staff Christmas parties, etc. We genuinely did feel like part of a ‘work family’. Friends came in all guises – I recall zipping down to Peter McLeavey Gallery in my Mini to pick up a couple of ‘extra’ McCahons Luit requested for an exhibition install that day!
Luit had a very small staff working with him in the 80s to deliver these mighty changes, but we were all inspired by him, excited to achieve the projects, so late nights didn’t matter. We worked as a team willingly supporting him change the culture.
Even in the early days, in 1981, Luit had a vision for a new, purpose-built art museum. To achieve this we had our day job, then mainly worked at night scoping and developing briefs, contributing to architectural plans, etc., for a proper National Art Gallery on Molesworth Street.
Brimming with ideas and an excellent sense of what needed to change, forming alliances and connections, his generosity to and belief in artists and trust in his staff made Luit the best boss I ever had in almost 40 years of working in art museums in New Zealand and Australia…and he remained a most dear and enduring friend.
Jill Trevelyan, Curatorial Intern (1988); Assistant Curator (1990–1993)
On 4 March 1988, my first day as an intern at the National Art Gallery, the Barbara Kruger exhibition opened at Shed 11. I’d seen Kruger’s work in magazines like Artforum and now, here it was in Wellington. For a young curator, Wellington was the place to be – and that was largely due to Luit.
In nine years, Luit had turned the National Art Gallery, once a fusty institution, into a place where anything seemed possible. Frustrated at the limitations of its building in Buckle Street, he had persuaded the Harbour Board to make Shed 11 available as a contemporary space – a ‘platform for experimentation’, and a central city venue that office workers could visit in their lunch hour.
Shed 11 opened in 1986 with Temporary/Contemporary, featuring Chris Booth’s Ngā Rimu o Puketi, and a performance by From Scratch, Pacific 321 Zero. That was followed by an amazing array of exhibitions, local and international, including Wild Visionary Spectral: New German Art; Taki Toru: Three Māori Artists; Cindy Sherman; and Advance Australia Painting. There were collection-based shows (‘From Today Painting is Dead’: Photographs from the Collection and The Painted Zoo); and projects by Pauline Rhodes, Matt Pine, Imants Tillers, Bruce Connew, Daniel Buren and others. In 1986 Luit curated Content/Context, the largest exhibition of contemporary art in Aotearoa to date, an ambitious two-part survey of work by 60 artists, with equal representation of men and women. He made an astonishing 300 studio visits to select the show.
Ambitious – that was Luit. Not ambitious in a personal sense, but ambitious in his vision of what a national art institution could be. Ambitious in his level of commitment to whatever he was working on – exhibition, book or documentary film. His energy was formidable, and he would go to any lengths for the artists he believed in. He was a loyal and generous friend and mentor – always willing to share ideas and resources, and support new initiatives.
Luit, you are an inspiration: we owe you so much, and we miss you. Aroha nui to Jan and the Bieringa family, who shared you with us. Moe mai rā e te rangatira.
Tony Mackle, Curator of Paintings (1980–1986); Curator of Archives (1986–1992)
Working at the National Art Gallery in the 1980s was both exciting and exhausting but staff were energised by Luit’s dynamism and commitment to follow through on a constantly changing and engaging exhibition programme. His energy and vision transformed a staid institution into a happening place. At any one time, there would be exhibitions of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture installations, both national and international, on display, as well as a supplementary programme of related events. All this ensured a diverse and returning audience.
After the scrapping of the new National Art Gallery in Molesworth Street in 1985, and the project office for developing Te Papa was established, those who worked at Buckle Street regretted the change of pace and focus. The bureaucracy which was to accompany the Te Papa project was an aspect of the new organization which Luit foresaw would hamper the ability to continue a vibrant and contemporary art programme. Luit’s attitude to bureaucracy was simply to ignore it – to the consternation and frustration of administrators.
Shed 11, and exhibitions such as Content / Context which he curated, were the heart and soul of Luit’s approach and perhaps his greatest art legacy. Astutely chosen photographic collections and later his films form the trinity of his achievements in a life devoted to his cultural passions. Even though we were polar opposites we always maintained a good respect and rapport. I greatly admired the hard work he did while unwell and was pleased to be able to assist him with the Shed 11 project in his final weeks. A unique and tough act to follow or even match.
Tim Walker, Curator New Zealand Historical Art and Contemporary Maori Art (1988–89), Curator in Charge (1990–91), Senior Curator Art (Te Papa 1992–98)
Luit’s vision as National Art Gallery director impacted on me well before I joined the staff in 1988. His leadership in bringing international ‘zeitgeist’ contemporary art exhibitions to Wellington during the 1980s (before Shed 11) had made the NAG the most exciting contemporary art site in Aotearoa – by a significant margin.
When I did join the staff as historical New Zealand curator I realised how much Luit’s generosity – to art, artists, ideas – defined him and the institution. A lunchtime session with Barbara Kruger one day, Derek Cowie commissioned to work on the wall of Luit’s office the next. Luit’s infectious intelligence and energy inspired so many people and some truly extraordinary outcomes.
Athol McCredie, Photography Researcher (1978–1981); Visiting Photography Curator (1986–1989).
I was employed off-and-on at the National Art Gallery in the 1980s. My time included working closely with Luit on a touring exhibition by American photographer Richard Misrach and on In Our Own Image – a massive New Zealand photo exhibition you will never have heard of because it was cancelled when his job was terminated. My enduring memory is the energy of the place. Michael Volkerling later wrote that it was like a start-up company of enthusiastic and hard-working staff inspired by a charismatic leader with a cause. Volkerling disapproved, for he thought there needed to be more systems and structure in place, but as Luit once said to me, ‘Nobody remembers you for being a good bureaucrat. It’s for the things you’ve done.’
I went on to be curator and then acting director at Luit’s old playground, the Manawatu Art Gallery in the 1990s. Some years later he said to me, ‘I’m sick of hearing gallery directors tell me they don’t have enough funding. You don’t need money, you just need to connect with your community and then you generate a whole lot of goodwill.’ That was how he had operated at Manawatu (the community including the New Zealand-wide arts community as well as the local population). Yes, that was exactly the lesson I learnt there too. Artists in particular could be surprisingly generous if you just offered them an opportunity. And they would spread the word.
A director of a public gallery in the 1970s once described to me how the younger ones like himself and Luit were constantly railing against the ‘boring old farts’ who were running the large art galleries and museums. He ruefully added that some of his generation went on to become boring old farts in their own right. Luit, you were never a boring old fart.
Robert Leonard, Curatorial Intern (1985), Assistant Curator (1987), Curator Contemporary New Zealand Art (1989-91)
Robert Leonard’s recollections can be read on his own blog.
We return to Louise Pether for the last words:
Luit’s proud and protective P.A., Edda McCabe, wrote to me on the day Luit died:
Rimu, rimu, tere, teere, maringi nga roimata.
The swirling seaweed that cradles the newly departing soul down the current, pathway of souls, to be with the ancestors… and the tears spill.
But every Matariki we will remember him, shining.
More reflections on Luit Bieringa
Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive of Te Papa has written a personal response on her own blog.
Mark Amery’s obituary for Stuff.
The Big Idea, Leaving Legacies That Last