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New Plymouth, which has a population of around 50,000, is in many ways a typical provincial town, given an extra dollop of Twin Peaks character by its location- sandwiched between the picture-postcard beauty of Mount Taranaki, which dominates the town, and the rugged West Coast which the town in turn ignores, as it is built facing inwards. Nestled within this is the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery which in the last two years has had a resurgence of profile and energy after the building of extensions and the implementation of a new staff structure. New Plymouth may seem an odd location for a cutting-edge contemporary art gallery, but it was here that eighty delegates gathered for the three-day international conference, Curating Now.
The first morning of the conference was dedicated to exploring and discussing research. The first paper was given by Connie Butler, Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The Govett-Brewster's slide projector, a wilful and petulant tease which eventually forced Butler and others who followed to abandon their visual aids, continued, much like the heavy shadow of the mountain that casts itself over the city, to make its presence felt. This may have been the source of much conversation during tea breaks, but more pertinent is what delegates are talking about in the wake of Curating Now?
A continuing area of concern was raised by Robert Leonard, Director of Artspace, Auckland on the first morning. Although not entirely relevant to the panel discussion on 'The value or research ', Leonard used the opportunity to prompt debate about the sector's ongoing investment in bricks and mortar, rather than in the intellectual and programming infrastructure of institutions. For a population of 3.8 million people, New Zealand has six hundred museums and galleries, yet there are shrinking opportunities for curators to work, and funding of these institutions is constantly under threat by local and national governments. Much of this money is sucked into the monolithic Te Papa Tongawera/The Museum of New Zealand (the Mt Taranaki of the Wellington waterfront) which currently displays animatronic dinosaurs in its major exhibition space, yet consigns its token fine arts projects (a small show of Frances Hodgkins and her peers, a blink-and-miss it selection of 'recent' acquisitions) to obscure shopping mall spaces. Te Papa and its bums-on-seat mandate was often the hot topic over the weekend, criticism handled bravely by its Concept Curator, lan Wedde.
The second session was disappointing, with a tendency for panellists to seize the opportunity to present their own slides and indulge their ideas in front of a captive audience rather than to address the topic as directed. By the end of the day, things did not seem to bode well for the remainder of proceedings: instead of an atmosphere of generous interaction, it was more one of selfish soliloquies, most of which went well over time. These random ramblings were re-named by anonymous attendees as 'So, what's on your mind?' or 'What's the last thing I printed out'. Highlights of the first day, and an example of how to use the allotted time and use it effectively, were the paper by Sydney-based freelancer Ewen McDonald on
independent research and the presentation by Tina Barton of Victoria University, Wellington on the University's new Adam Art Gallery. Telling moments came from presentations by Pakeha about Indigenous histories, motifs and art, suggesting the (well-meaning) mixture of cultural enlightenment and cringe that was to continue into the next day.
In the best tradition of the Taranaki rugby team, Wellington artist, educator and occasional curator Gavin Hipkins played a blinder on the Saturday morning. As part of a panel looking at 'The curator as artist/activist/change agent', Hipkins's opening statement provoked one of the best discussions. Addressing the bigger and better-known institutions one by one, Hipkins gave a blistering run-down of their strengths and their weaknesses, which had a number of po-faced participants squirming in their seats. His relative distance from the institutions allowed Hipkins an insight that was unpleasant because it was so accurate. It was unfortunate that these criticisms of individual institutions- for example (and I'm paraphrasing), the commitment of City Gallery, Wellington to international blockbuster exhibitions at the expense of its local programme, contrasted with the parochialism of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch-was not allowed to develop in focus groups or other panels. A widespread complaint amongst many of those who attended Curating Now was that the conference catered for only a small range of institutions and individuals: art galleries rather than museums, contemporary art rather than historical, theoretical issues rather than practical. This was illustrated in the list of panelists and presenters, who were mostly well-known names from large galleries nationally and internationally. A future event could only benefit from better recognising those working in the regions with limited resources and contacts.
The Saturday afternoon session was held in the beautiful meeting house at the Owe Marae, Waitara, a few kilometres out of New Plymouth. The session looked at issues of the global and local, biculturalism and multi-culturalism. A highlight was the paper by Dr Deirdre Brown, who teaches art history at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury. She considered two exhibitions, 'Goldie' curated by Roger Blackley and 'Rukutia, Rukutia' by Moana Tipa, looking at how they incorporated Maori content and concerns into shows which operated in a predominantly Pakeha environment. Brown's presentation was mercifully slide-free (perhaps most appreciated by the long-suffering Conference coordinator Hanna Scott). The change of location to Owae Marae was timely; the Te Atiawa people there were welcoming and generous hosts, and Gary Nicholas, General Manager of Toi Maori, was an adept and sensitive facilitator.
The Sunday session began with a publications and exhibitions market, which was a total fizzer. This allowed those speakers whose time had been shortened or slides had been sabotaged to finish their presentations to a handful of audience members.
The final panel discussion of the conference, 'Curatorial Support Structures', proved the most worthwhile. Issues that had been percolating bubbled over and a number of delegates found their voice for the first time. Panellist William McAloon, formerly of Auckland Art Gallery and now a freelance curator and writer in Wellington, commented that he was the last Curatorial Trainee under the old Museum of New Zealand scheme, undertaking his internship in 1992. A relevant point, when two more institutions are launching Museum Studies classes (incorporating Curatorial Practice) in 2000, yet no more jobs are being created within museums and galleries. This was an ironic issue at Curating Now, which had lacked focus on practical issues (where, for instance, was any forum for talk of working with collections, or for consideration of extension and education programmes?). However, eventually the conference evolved into a worthwhile and broad-based meeting. The realities of working in the regions received air time and the implications of increasing financial constraints were considered. There was, in these last hours of the conference, even some mention of the audience, for whom curatorial practice is supposedly undertaken. It was a pity that these matters had not been broached from the outset. The final note was a positive one, therefore, with the formation of a working party to continue deliberating the issues raised and to develop strategies for further action.