Saving Palmerston North’s Art Gallery...From What Exactly?

Art

25.01.2020

Saving Palmerston North’s Art Gallery...From What Exactly?

Does Palmy’s art gallery really need saving? India Essuah speaks to the people behind a petition to save the art gallery, and those who reckon the petition opposes the gallery's core values of diversity and inclusivity.

A call to ‘Save the Art Gallery in Palmerston North’ has garnered traction online, gaining close to 5000 signatures. Beneath the petition’s vague wording to ‘save’ Palmerston North’s art gallery at Te Manawa lie questions about the deeper motivations of those behind it, and highlights tensions that run through the region’s art community. 

The petition was delivered to Palmerston North City Council last September, after being initiated in 2018, as a response to uncertainty about whether the gallery building would remain, as part of a proposed redevelopment. When the gallery was closed for maintenance, some in the community misunderstood the temporary gallery closure to mean the building would be demolished. Te Manawa's Chief Executive Andy Lowe says that they weren’t planning on demolishing the building. In fact, “no one was anywhere near it”.

The petition builds on this speculation, demanding that the gallery be run independently from Te Manawa Museums Trust. The trust have managed the gallery as a council-controlled organisation since 2002, although the gallery merged with the museum and science centre in the 1990s. After the pushback against the temporary closure, the gallery re-opened months earlier than expected, seeing the cancellation of planned work, including the removal of asbestos. Owner of the eponymous Zimmerman Art Gallery (which is located across the road from Te Manawa), Bronwyn Zimmerman initiated the petition to ‘save’ the public gallery. During its closure, she held a ‘mournful’ protest exhibition called Black, featuring monochromatic contemporary works that fitted dramatic themes of “sadness, loss, bewilderment, watching, waiting, falling, floating, fragility and instability”. 

Some of those who are against the petition believe that the public debate about Te Manawa’s goals is also fuelled by a resistance to its core values of inclusivity. Made up of nine gallery and museum spaces, Te Manawa has the motto “a museum without borders”. Their commitment to community involvement has led to initiatives like the NOA Open Studio – where people with mixed abilities are given space to create art in the gallery’s main foyer – amongst many other achievements and developments for accessibility. In fact, Lowe was recently inducted to the board of Te Papa (where he had previously worked for 14 years), with that institution hoping to “learn from the regional museum”.

Beneath the petition’s vague wording to ‘save’ Palmerston North’s art gallery at Te Manawa lie questions about the deeper motivations of those behind it, and highlights tensions that run through the region’s art community. 

Palmerston North Councillor Rachel Bowen explains that Te Manawa embraces the rainbow community “wholeheartedly”, and recently “gave a home” to MaLGRA, the country’s longest-running LGBT association. They were also one of only two organisations in the southern hemisphere to be invited and funded to attend an international workshop called OF/BY/FOR ALL, in Santa Cruz, California. The programme acts as an accelerator to create tangible, community-led action around inclusivity and diversity. 

Lowe is among those who believe a lot of the fuel behind the petition comes from people who are “still focused on a certain way of working and a certain type of art, and status of artists who should be shown in there”.

“It’s a very privileged Pākehā model, I would say – most galleries are,” Lowe says. “We had complaints about having street art in there.”

“I’m quite interested in the whole class thing that we don’t talk about hugely in museums… It’s still a pretty elitist place to come into as a member of the public. I’ve been involved with the LGBT community for many years, and with activism, so I’ve always been interested in how to change the world in these sort of places.”

Another important player is Te Manawa’s Art Society, who originally helped to fundraise for the building and collection. Some members have said they think the gallery could benefit from being managed separately from Te Manawa. The society’s president, former councillor Duncan McCann, says the society as a whole takes a neutral stance on the issue, but supports the gallery’s outlook.

Zimmerman takes a far stronger position, saying she often comes away from the gallery feeling “sad and a bit disappointed”. She believes the gallery could have more of a focus on displaying its collection, and attracting international exhibitions – views many others are sure to share, and will hopefully be addressed within the gallery’s ambitious redevelopment. The question remains whether this is enough of a reason to lobby for Te Manawa Museums Trust to lose the management of the gallery. When I ask Zimmerman for her views on the gallery’s focus on community, she states that she believes they have taken this “too far’’, revealing a wider disagreement she has with the aims of Te Manawa. 

She says that while Te Manawa deserve “full kudos” for bringing in groups that might not have otherwise felt welcome in traditional gallery and museum spaces, “their focus has been so much on diversity and catering for people who have traditionally been marginalised that they’ve forgotten about some of us who are your traditional museum-goers, so we now feel like we are becoming the marginalised community. There are a lot of gallery owners or other people who no longer feel that this is a place for us. Te Manawa spends a lot of time talking about how they’re involving everyone and bringing in diversity, but they’re actually managing to exclude a lot of people.”

I’m quite interested in the whole class thing that we don’t talk about hugely in museums…I’ve always been interested in how to change the world in these sort of places

As someone who says she “woke up one day” and decided to start a successful private gallery, the idea that she’s being excluded appears to follow the flawed logic of those within majority groups who see affirmative action as a threat to the privilege they’ve grown used to. Zimmerman is aware that some perceive it this way, but denies that those who share her views are elitist – stating once again that such “tags” are a form of “marginalisation”. 

While these sentiments hadn’t been explicitly expressed in previous coverage of the petition, they help to illuminate why some are so focused on Te Manawa as an organisation, rather than other issues, such as increased funding for the gallery. Lowe says that dealing with such differing views on what is valued as art, and who are valued as artists, can get “quite heavy sometimes” but he remains committed to dissolving these tensions, and figuring out how public spaces can become more useful to the community.

Councillor Rachel Bowen adds that “the question has always been and will continue to be, how do we meet those community expectations, how do we do the best for our community with what is a limited resource?”

She explains that as it’s publicly funded, it comes with responsibilities to be inclusive.

“Members of the community can’t blame Te Manawa for being inclusive of marginalised communities because we ask them to do that. I would question whether people who have a particular view of the kind of art they want to see are actually a marginalised community by any generally accepted definition.”

On social media, local artist Sam Orchard called for people to write in support of the gallery ahead of the petition’s delivery, calling the gallery an “amazing place to visit and learn, and it has been really amazing at supporting diversity and activism through art”. 

He shares the opinion that the petitioner's claim that the gallery has “lost its identity and national standing” is a “coded way of trying to keep art as an elitist, white, closed-off thing. Allowing diverse, grassroots, activist voices to have space is something that we need more of.”

A lot of the fuel behind the petition comes from people who are “still focused on a certain way of working and a certain type of art, and status of artists who should be shown in there”. 

Bowen, who chairs the council's Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee, says because the work they’re doing is “challenging, people get uncomfortable”. 

“But it’s being recognised as being ground-breaking work internationally. So am I surprised that there’s some push-back? Absolutely not. But does that mean that we shouldn’t do it? No, it doesn’t mean that.”

Zimmerman says that over the last five years, the museum’s visitor numbers have been declining, putting this down to a lack of travelling exhibitions that visit other cities. She says galleries like Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery show that smaller venues can still attract lofty visitor numbers.

“If the public art gallery does not bring contemporary art shows from around New Zealand, then who will? There are shows that will only tour to a public art gallery, so all of Manawatu misses out. For example, Dick Frizzell is not represented by a gallery here. The only way people in our community get to see an exhibition by Dick Frizzell is if Te Manawa will bring it.”

She says the gallery is currently operating “on a shoestring [budget]” and that it needs dedicated funding to strengthen its collection. “There are a lot of people who are in agreement we should have a much more vibrant, thriving art gallery than we do, and a lot more attention and resources should be in it, and it should engage more with the community, and we should have more staff and curators in there.”

In 2017, before the petition began, similar tensions came to a head when a mural painted by graffiti artist Haser was covered up to make way for a pop-up art project by the council and Zimmerman Gallery, featuring a sculpture by Paul Dibble. The mural was organised by Safe As gallery owner Kam Donnelly, but covered up due to a “requirement” from the sculptor to “restore the site’s original aesthetic”.

Concerns about Te Manawa’s “vibrancy” and its community focus are perhaps most blatant in the local paper’s art reviews, written by artist and critic Fran Dibble, Paul’s partner. While reviews of shows at Zimmerman Gallery, where she and her husband have exhibited, often tend to have a positive bent, she has said Te Manawa “offers little to the fabric of the town”. 

In one particularly telling decision, she says that community street-art festival Pulse is undeserving of a review slot, writing, “not to mince words and keeping my comments brief, it must be one of the worst exhibitions I have ever seen at the gallery”.

“If I had stumbled across this in a community venue I would be kinder, this is where chalk painting and photographs of an urban art festival surely should be seen. To devote the best and biggest space of the city's public gallery for this exhibition is astonishing – surely this is where the best of art should be showcased for people to see.”

Lowe says that dealing with such differing views on what is valued as art, and who are valued as artists, can get “quite heavy sometimes” but he remains committed to dissolving these tensions, and figuring out how public spaces can become more useful to the community.

In another review, she writes that “often more radical and difficult art projects are championed by our public galleries, who as time has gone on have become poorer and less significant players.”

She adds: “an undercurrent of street and urbane [sic] art has erupted, with the support of councils, to place art in the community in a mixed bag of projects. I wonder whether they will retain relevance in later years.”

With an ambitious development plan (Te Manawa 2025) in the works, Lowe is keen to attract more high-profile shows and is currently in talks about a Picasso exhibition that may come from Portugal. But he also says that some people need to recognise that they’re able to “go into any gallery, at any point, and it’s all for them”. 

When it comes to creating inclusive spaces, he says “trying to make it happen is hard work. The words are just so easy to say and everybody’s saying them, but I really think the petition came out of that.” 

He adds that his “communication could have been better in terms of getting on top of [the petition]”, with this being a focus from now on. He says that even small changes that aim to dispel elitism can be misunderstood, such as their decision to call curators ‘programme developers’. “They can also do more than a curator traditionally does [but] people think, so where are the curators then?”

In some ways, the resistance exemplifies why Lowe’s approach is so necessary, but it’s disappointing those wanting to prioritise inclusivity face such a hard road. On some fronts, the community’s investment in the quality and future of the gallery is heartening, but this needs to be more clearly separated from the fact that “some people don’t think that other people should be a part of things”. Many of the city’s councillors have made this distinction, with Bowen stating she knows the council can’t focus solely on the loudest voices in the room. 

Despite the controversies, Lowe sees a bright future for Te Manawa and is encouraged by those in the community “who are future focused and interested in communities doing things together”.

“That keeps me going,” he says.

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