When is an exhibition not an exhibition?

When is an exhibition not an exhibition?

Librarian Amy Phillips responds to a research request received by Te Papa’s library, Te Aka Matua, which leads to solving a mystery and publishing information to improve a Wikipedia page.

Te Aka Matua Library research requests

At Te Aka Matua, Te Papa’s library, we receive enquiries from all sorts – historians, curators, artists, biographers, and school kids, amongst others.

Recently, we received an enquiry regarding Elva Bett, an artist and dealer who established one of the first dealer galleries in Wellington.

The researcher was wanting to find out more information about an exhibition titled A Room of One’s Own: Women in New Zealand Art which Elva Bett had purportedly curated in the mid-1960s. The information had originated from her Wikipedia page.

The book cited after this information was Vanishing Points by Michele Leggott:

The show was curated by Elva Bett, even then a force on the local art scene and an expert at bridging its politics. Somehow, using her connections at the Academy of Fine Arts, which in those days was located alongside the National Gallery on the upper floor of the Dominion Museum, Elva persuaded the governing bodies of all three institutions into commissioning the exhibition. It was to be a survey, at once contemporary and historical, and Elva Bett called it A Room of One’s Own: Women in New Zealand Art.

This exhibition certainly sounded fantastic, with women artists from all around Aotearoa New Zealand contributing – Lois White, Rita Angus, Diggeress Te Kanawa, Ans Westra, Marti Friedlander, and Helen Crabb.

Searching for information

After a Google search turned up no further information about that exhibition, we waded through the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum annual reports from 1964 and thereabouts.

Sometimes, in its formative stages, an exhibition name will morph into something radically different. Previously, for example, we’ve received enquiries about an exhibition called The Exchange, which had later become Parade, an exhibition held at Te Papa from 1998 to 2001 and described as a “bold, provocative, and sometimes shocking meeting-place”.

The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum 1964/1965 annual reports listed exhibitions titled Three British Painters, Australian Painting, Contemporary German Graphic Art and The Michener Collection of American Paintings as well as Soviet Children’s Paintings, along with a series of lithograph, etching and engraving exhibitions.

Could British, American and German painters or Soviet children transform into New Zealand women painters? Perhaps not. Looking through other exhibition lists from the 60s, we found nothing of this name.

The Library’s Artist files (which can contain notes, clippings, reviews, exhibition invitations – almost anything of an ephemeral nature) were up next. Elva Bett’s file contained newspaper clippings from the 1960s, including reviews she’d written and personal notices. No mention of this exhibition. After other avenues turned up no leads, the last resort was to contact the Vanishing Points author, Michele Leggott.

A wedge-shaped room which has bookshelves on one side and filing shelves on the other. There is another two-sided bookcase in the centre of the room that has books displayed on stands on top.
Te Aka Matua Library Reading Room. Photo by Te Papa

Discovering the truth!

We emailed Leggott to query where she had found the information about the exhibition A Room of One’s Own: Women in New Zealand Art, as we were unable to find anything further about it. She responded:

The prose poem ‘Self-portrait: Still Life. A Family Story’ (Vanishing Points, 2017) invents a show of New Zealand Women’s art, historical and contemporary, curated by Elva Bett who seemed to me to be an obvious choice for the role if ever there had been such a show. I also reinvented my mother as an artist and the poem explores the dual creativity of motherhood and painting.

The exhibition was not an exhibition. While the Wikipedia citation had pointed to the right place, the information contained there wasn’t factual. That solved the mystery but left us in a sticky situation – we needed to state the exhibition was fictional, without a published source which explicitly states it being so.

To ensure we could cite a reliable source, we are publishing this blog prior to updating the Wikipedia page, so that we are able to then use this as a reference.

Improving the Wikipedia page

As well as reliably referencing the fiction, we’d like to improve Elva Bett’s Wikipedia page by including factual information about what she did curate. Fortunately, our library does hold a published source in the form of an art history essay, which references an exhibition Elva Bett curated as director of the Centre Gallery in 1968 titled Painting today by Thirty Women Painters, which included a work by Rita Angus, amongst others.

A collage print of a stylised green hill, blue water, a tall white tower and and orange moon.
Elva Bett, Moon and monolith, 1960s. Gift of the National Council of Adult Education, Jubilee (1938-88) donation, 1988. Te Papa (1988-0028-14)

Once this blog is published, the Wikipedia page should read:

Elva Bett was referred to in a book of prose poems about visual art by Michele Leggott called Vanishing Points. This book of poetry combines historical references such as Bett and paintings by Leggott’s mother with references to fictional works of art by Leggott’s mother and fictional exhibitions such as reference to the exhibition A Room of One’s Own: Women in New Zealand Art, 1964 purportedly curated by Bett. [Blog post citation will be here]

An actual exhibition Elva Bett did curate in the 1960s, was Painting today by Thirty Women Painters. [Citation: The Self-Portraits of Rita Angus by Elva Bett, Vol.1 p.73]

By retaining the poetic reference and editing the sentence to accurately reflect what is fact and what is fiction, we will hopefully prevent any future requests for information relating to the fictional exhibition.

Further reading

  • Bett, E. (1995). The self-portraits of Rita Angus : (1908-1970): research essay ArtH.489.
  • Brunton, A. (1977). Art People Dealing Court Cards in Cuba Street. Art New Zealand. 4, February/March 1977
  • Leggott, M. (2017) Vanishing Points. Auckland University Press.


1 Comment

  1. Love the self-referentiality of this article. 🙂

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