Inside the black cube

Manufacturing meaning
The Adam Art Gallery, Wellington

On the unlikely site of an unused staircase in Wellington 's Victoria University, local architect Ian Athfield has created an art gallery of great formal presence. A zinc-clad black cube, the gallery rises fourteen metres between the Victorian architecture of the Hunter Building and the 1980s' glass and concrete Student Union.

The opening of the Adam Art Gallery Te Pataka Toi in September, 1999 was a bold step for the University. The decision to build a University gallery comes at a time when economic constraints dominate tertiary funding. Finance for the building costs, a modest $2.2 million, came from outside sources. Benefactors Denis and Verna Adam contributed almost half, with additional support from private sources. The University will pick up the Gallery's estimated NZ$200,000 annual tab for operational costs and future projects will be funded through grants and other forms of fundraising.

Art collections exist in several New Zealand tertiary institutions but by international standards the collections are modest in scale. The University of Otago's Hocken Library remains the only institution to employ a team of specialist curators and to operate a professionally-managed museum for its substantial pictorial and heritage collections. The lack of local precedent tor University art museums makes the Adam Art Gallery an even more daring enterprise. It says much for the tenacity of Jenny Harper, Head of Art History, that the Gallery has been built at all.

However the boldness of this initiative has also been contentious. Most dramatic has been the furore both inside and beyond the University following the decision early this year to de-accession Colin McCahon's painting Storm Warning, 1980-81. Facing a building fund shortfall, the de-accessioning was promoted as a means to plug that gap and to establish a trust fund tor future acquisitions of emerging artists. It was argued that McCahon's legacy would spearhead a new generation of collecting. Victoria's position became tenuous after the sale when McCahon's correspondence, requesting that his gift remain in public hands, was discovered. It also transpired that no formal collection management policy was in place to guide the disposal process. This is not the place to debate the pros and cons of the 'Big 0'. More importantly, at the time of writing, the University Council has stalled its decision on how much will be allocated to the Trust Fund. Media reports suggest that University staff, clearly oblivious to the ethics of accepted museum practice, continue to debate the disposition of sale proceeds. Purposes as disparate as a McCahon swimming pool, or scholarships and artists' residencies vie for consideration.

With its inaugural exhibition, Manufacturing Meaning, the Adam Art Gallery signals that it is open for business and that it means business. Eleven guest curators have developed a small project show, each creating a contextualising 'exhibition' for a single work from the University Collection. Tina Barton , a lecturer in the Victoria University's Art History Department, and former curator of contemporary art at the National Art Gallery, selected the ten works from the University's Collection and commissioned the guest curators. For Zara Stanhope, the Gallery's director, these exhibitions also are a strategy to build professional links with curators and artists as well as inviting critical approaches and informed engagement with the visual arts from a variety of audiences.

Manufacturing Meaning asserts that curatorship and curatorial practice in Aotearoa are alive and well. The exhibitions offer evidence of a particular sort of curatorial practice: here curators are makers of meaning. It is they who set the agenda and control the dialogue. In an era which has seen curatorial practice of this nature diminished, these exhibitions take on a particular significance.

Inevitably, such an exhibition touches too lightly on too many themes. What this type of presentation cannot do is interrogate and expose the particular context of a University Collection, its biases and omissions. In creating contexts for the works it is curious that not one curator was prepared to consider the relationship of the work to  the University Collection. This association is avoided, denied even. Nor can these exhibitions, on their own , begin the necessary debate about how this Collection is to develop in the future.

For the most part the exhibitions are strong but uncontentious curatorial statements about particular works. As an accompanying media release confidently states: 'Manufacturing Meaning otters important new insights into the history of New Zealand art... '. Scholarship is enhanced. For much of the visual arts community, unhappy that Te Papa, as it is currently constituted, does not provide the art experience which an informed audience wants or expects, the Adam Art Gallery delivers a series of exhibitions which may fulfil those needs for the time being.

The exhibitions are installed on all three levels of the Gallery, sometimes in loose chronological periods or in thematic alliances. On the whole the works sit comfortably in autonomous zones made possible by the Gallery's flexible design and carefully articulated flow patterns. Serendipitous confluences have been exploited in show's installation . These can be quite striking: the decorative design elements of John Weeks's figurative works face Frances Hodgkins's fluid, almost surreal late landscapes across a gallery space just twelve feet wide. At other times the affinities are more subtle. The spiral shape of the Conus marmoreus shell in Peter Peryer's After Rembrandt (1995) is innocent enough. Thereafter, it takes on disturbing overtones in Peter Robinson's $ signs with koru embellishment ( 100%, 1994) before Greg Burke takes the same symbol in Richard Killeen 's series of 'cut-outs' Welcome to the South Pacific as the focal point for an extended discussion on identity, location and history. Finally, Ngarino Ellis and Damian Skinner in their response to Gordon Waiters Kahukara, 1968, collaborate to present a partial analysis of the use of kowhaiwhai patterns in the period 1960-1975. Their presentation, which is substantially text based and resembles a 'book on a wall', declares its limitations by expressly denying the visual attributes of exhibition making. lt is this exhibition more than any other which requires extended treatment through a public education program. Nevertheless, it is such confluences-in this case the pervasive koru or spiral as an enduring motif in New Zealand-which provide substance for gallery goers. While these concerns cannot be legislated in a curatorial brief it does indicate that the critical conversations between curators can be mediated in and through the public space of the gallery. lt will be important tor the Gallery to ensure that the debate is extended through public programs.

Three of the curators Elizabeth Eastmond, David Maskill and Linda Tyler adopt a conventional art historical approach and strive to locate 'their' artwork within a tradition or paradigm. Their scholarship and insights are authoritative. David Maskill 's treatment of Peter Peryer's photograph After Rembrandt, 1995, is the most compact of any of the projects. This photograph and its source, Rembrandt's etching The Shell, 1650, are brought together with a specimen of the Conus marmoreus shell and eighteenth century taxonomic illustrations. The shell, a chance find bought in an Aachen flea-market by Peryer and 'repatriated' to New Zealand, is the subject of his photograph. Maskill 's focus reveals tor us that these two artists, separated by time and geography, share an interest in subverting the traditions of still-lite, with both of them exploring the boundaries of technique to question objective truth.

Another group of projects is more exploratory, playing on themes inherent within particular works. Ewen McDonald focusing on McCahon's Gate Ill, 1970 examines the 'I'/self/subjectivity; Anna Miles considers issues related to distance and intimacy through a surprising, sometimes quirky selection of portraits surrounding Jacqueline Fahey's, The Birthday Party, 1974; and Stuart McKenzie offers an energetic reading of Michael Smither's work, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1972.

McKenzie assembled twenty works as testament to Smither's various interpretations of the sacred and profane, evidence that political statements about money, corruption and venality abound in contemporary art. The exhibition pulls no punches. McCahon's de-accessioned Storm Warning with its prophetic inscription, ' ... men will love nothing but money and self; they will be arrogant ... ', returns to the University placed as an emphatic punctuation mark in this installation. McKenzie has created the exhibition 'to help keep an eye on the value that the sale of the McCahon has now been contracted to provide'. The University might do well to heed warnings of artist and curator.

Inside Athfield's black cube there is already evidence that the Gallery can make an important contribution to the visual arts in New Zealand. There are aspirations to build upon New Zealand's Pacific-nation status looking outward to develop projects, artist residencies and exchanges. Zara Stanhope indicates that changes have occurred rapidly. In less than twelve months draft policies for the Gallery and its activities have been formulated and await approval; an Advisory Board has been appointed; a management and funding structure under the Deputy Vice Chancellor has been established. That last move, in particular, signals that this is a University Gallery with an allegiance to the whole University and the community beyond.

There is every reason to celebrate the opening of the Adam Art Gallery. However the challenges for the Gallery were imprinted in its foundations long before they were excavated. Art museums, like universities, construct and maintain values which perpetuate social distinctions excluding more than they admit. Art museums within universities face a double jeopardy. Nowhere is this more so than in the fee-paying Universities of New Zealand. The Adam Art Gallery's real challenge lies in rigorous pursuit of its educational purpose. It is this which requires the greatest re-definition at this time.