Profoundly Tested

“We are profoundly tested.” That’s how Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper described the situation she found herself in just one year after the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes that forced her gallery’s closure. In an article for Artlink, she wrote of the difficulty in seeing the gallery devoid of visitors, of the frustration of living with an uncertain future, and the reality of staff redundancies. She wasn’t to know then just how much greater the challenges were to get. Despite having already planned and cancelled three reopening events, Harper and her staff were still quietly confident of being up and running again in early 2014. But early 2014 saw no celebration. Neither did early 2015. Christchurch Art Gallery’s eventual reopening date would turn out to be 19 December 2015, almost five years after the second earthquake. Profoundly tested, indeed. And yet, during those 1761 days of closure, Jenny Harper and the team at CAG managed something extraordinary – they kept going.


Christchurch Art Gallery (image care of NZMuseums)

Having steered the gallery through its first year of closure with a regime of administrative tasks that saw their website upgraded and 90% of their collection online and copyright cleared, Harper began to look at new ways of bringing art to Cantabrians. Without a physical building, they were free to reinvent themselves as dynamic, resourceful and entirely community-centric. Thinking outside the box, or in this case the white cube, Christchurch Art Gallery became the gallery without walls as the curatorial team looked for alternative sites from which they could feed the public’s imagination. Ingenious ideas came to the fore.


At the heart of their post-quake programming was the belief not only that good art mattered, but that it was vital to the recovery of Christchurch. This wasn’t just rhetoric. Prior to the quakes, public art abounded in Christchurch. One of the city’s singular delights as a visitor was in knowing that great art, both classic and contemporary, could be glimpsed around every corner. After the earthquakes, the majority of these works lay in ruins. With all of the city’s commercial galleries closed, and many artists left without studio space after the quakes, the local art community was at a standstill. Christchurch Art Gallery stepped in to provide support where possible, encouraging the artists to maintain their practice, and giving them a reason to do so with the maxim that ‘their creativity inspires ours.’

The collapse and partial demolition of so many buildings throughout the city had seen an apocalyptic landscape emerge of fragmented structures and concrete spans. Using this strange new topography as a guide, Christchurch Art Gallery elected to expand rather than scale back their existing OuterSpaces program of public art. Injecting humour into the rubble, they commissioned artists to create murals on newly revealed external walls, and animated the windows of an abandoned house with nighttime projections. Vacant premises were commandeered as venues for small-scale exhibitions and, as rebuilding began, an exhibition of work by Emily Hartley-Skutter was installed in a suburban display home, with sales agents doubling as gallery attendants.

To facilitate their existing children’s programming, a series of demountable showrooms were clustered together on a vacant block, and a family-focused exhibition of brightly-coloured and tactile works created. Adding an on-site classroom ensured schools could bring their students in for lessons, and a series of artist-led workshops was held for secondary school students. Schools that couldn’t attend had the option of scheduling a gallery educator to come to them with reproductions from the collection and materials needed for art lessons, with 20,000 Canterbury school students taking part in this two-year outreach programme.

Exhibitions that had been planned for the gallery were reconsidered, but not necessarily cancelled. A large retrospective of Maori artist Shane Cotton’s work was instead premiered at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane to coincide with the influx of visitors for the Asia Pacific Triennial, thereby exposing both artist and gallery to a wider audience. Others were remodeled to fit temporary gallery and outdoor spaces, including one Reconstruction, that became something of a swansong for buildings lost.

With the public collection in storage indefinitely, curators launched Faces from the Collection, selecting artworks for reproduction on billboards, partially demolished buildings, and in shop windows throughout the city. Staff wrote a weekly column in the Christchurch newspaper, and were given scope to blog freely about their latest news. Since closing, Christchurch Art Gallery has presented more than 101 projects; won multiple Civic Trust, Museums Aotearoa and Museums Australia Awards; added over 500 works to the public collection; and become the first gallery in New Zealand to introduce specific dementia programming.  And it has all been achieved despite enormous funding cuts.

Fighting for funding is never easy, but it is especially difficult in an environment where literally everyone needs assistance. One of their temporary exhibits, a 1.8 tonne bronze bull by artist Michael Parekowhai, struck a chord with audiences as a symbol of hope and strength. Letters to the Editor began appearing in the paper imploring the council to buy the work for the gallery. Knowing that additional funding was unavailable, Jenny Harper actively pursued benefactors to put money in the buying fund, hosted dinners where she committed each person to a monetary donation, and turned to crowd funding websit PledgeMe to raise the $206,050 required to purchase the work. The result, as Harper rather sheepishly admitted to the audience at Best in Heritage 2013 in Dubrovnik, was donations in excess of $1million. Astonishing in a city with residents still living without running water and flushing toilets.

“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance”

Jeanette Winterson

Old adages come to the fore when you think about Christchurch Art Gallery, all those naff sayings that people sprout when someone is going through a tough time. But there is one that can be applied to Christchurch Art Gallery with absolute sincerity – extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The strength of CAG’s resilience has been in making themselves indispensable to the local community. Research conducted prior to the earthquakes showed 91% of Christchurch’s residents defined themselves as return visitors to the gallery, an extraordinary level of community engagement. This put them in a position of trust from which they could help people grieve, heal and move forward through the power of art. Treating the city under construction as a sort of evolving installation art piece, Christchurch Art Gallery used public art as a way of reconnecting people to the changing landscape, initiating discussions about the future, and providing the levity needed to allow the community to focus on less serious issues.

As an example of how to approach adversity, Christchurch Art Gallery is perhaps without peer in the art world. Though their story has been extreme, and they have undoubtedly been bolstered by the outpouring of emotionally-driven support that follows each natural disaster, there are aspects of their last five years that those of us in less drastic situations can and should learn from (and frankly, if you look at the recent and ongoing funding cuts to the arts in Australia as a disaster of sorts, the term ‘disaster management’ might ultimately prove to be an accurate description of what we do). These are the things that I have taken from Jenny Harper and her gallery’s story:

Don’t be defeatist. Stop whining. Yes, the arts are underfunded, but that is not about to change any time soon. Find another way. Last year, Christchurch Art Gallery’s acquisition budget was cut by two thirds, making it one of the most poorly funded galleries in New Zealand, yet they managed to acquire 527 substantial artworks by 2015. Creative thinkers make good problem solvers. In the words of the post-quake emergency signage, “use an alternative route.”

Be proud of your abilities and achievements. If you think that your work has value, say so. Australians like to rib their Kiwi mates for being overtly proud of themselves, but there’s something to be said for their self-belief. Australians are buggers for being too apathetic or worrying about being tagged as a wanker, but reticence gets you nowhere. Have pride in your talents, and what you have to offer the world. Having said that, don’t actually turn into a wanker. There’s enough of them around. Which leads me to the next point….

Forego any sense of elitism. The Arts should include, not exclude. Be accessible. You don’t need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but so much of what is produced seeks to alienate and belittle under the pretense that its ‘high art’. We are a sector made up of people who have experienced being on the outside in one form or another. Hold that experience dear, and encourage audiences to engage at whatever level they feel comfortable. We need them as much as they need us.

Work together. The cultural sector is primarily a sector of solo practitioners. Find your allies, find mentors and mentees, and find people with a similar ethos to work with. As an industry, we’re up against some pretty big players in mining, education, agriculture etc. We have a better chance of being heard if we’re united.

Be courageous. Do you think it was easy for Jenny Harper to stand in front of several hundred people and ask for money to buy art in a city with so many competing priorities? She herself described it as “rather reckless”, but the strength of her convictions gave her the gumption to do it anyway. Stand up, take risks, buy the goddamn bull.

All images supplied by Christchurch Art Gallery unless otherwise stated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: