The Line Must be Drawn Here! City Gallery Wellington in crisis

The City Gallery Wellington saga may be reaching a final outcome – but it's a long way from over. Arts commentator Andrew Wood takes aim at Experience Wellington.

In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the normally urbane, cultured, and cerebral Captain Picard is thrust into the role of an action hero when the homogenising Borg start assimilating the Enterprise

In a fit of rage, he declaims, ‘We’ve made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!’

It seems an appropriate analogy for the response from the normally placid New Zealand art establishment confronted with Experience Wellington’s proposed changes to City Gallery Wellington.

Every civic cultural institution in Aotearoa has, one way or another, had to battle the glacial encroachment of city and district council control. The national arts ecosystem lingers on, despite the death of a thousand papercuts, but it is rare to see something nationally galvanise the great and the good (and the not so good) of our arts community in protecting a cultural taonga. 

Obviously, there are things City Gallery could do better, particularly when it comes to inclusiveness and representation – in no small fault due to an increasing loss of autonomy – but Experience Wellington’s bureaucratic philosophy seems to be one of needing to destroy the village in order to save it. 

In effect, dare I say it, Experience Wellington has gone rogue.

Numbers don’t lie

In a legal letter presented to Experience Wellington and Wellington Mayor Andy Foster, prepared by public law partner Tim Clarke and special counsel Catherine Marks from law firm Russell McVeagh, on behalf of a group of City Gallery patrons, the proposed restructuring may very well be procedurally unlawful under the Local Government Act. 

This challenge hinges on Experience Wellington’s refusal to seek consultation, effectively circumventing Council input and discussion by treating the restructuring as an ‘operational matter. 

Experience Wellington’s bureaucratic philosophy seems to be one of needing to destroy the village in order to save it.

Some 153,676 people visited the Gallery in 2018-2019. Half of those were visitors from outside Wellington, more or less evenly split between national and international visitors. COVID reduced that to 111,365 in 2020, which is still a huge number for any institution. 

This clearly demonstrates how important it is to Aotearoa’s cultural sector and arts ecosystem as a whole, nationally and internationally. 

Even putting the numbers aside, the outpouring of outrage from leading figures in Aotearoa’s cultural landscape should be proof enough that stakeholders in the gallery extend well beyond Experience Wellington.

The Stuff article, in which this new legal letter was reported, also states: ‘Experience Wellington’s current statement of intent stipulates a director role specifically for City Gallery and a new draft statement of intent put before the council as recently as April also stipulated a director role-specific to City Gallery. … Stuff has since learned that the roles of director and chief curator of City Gallery will remain disestablished, as the original proposal outlined.’

So what the hell is going on? 

Experience Wellington claims that the restructuring will further the institutional recognition of Te Ao Māori. 

We all want to see more tangata whenua representation, but it’s very difficult to see how that can be meaningly achieved with a Toi Māori curator way down the bottom of the managerial pou with the other surviving, effectively demoted curator, without the kind of specific understanding, support, and advocacy of a dedicated director and senior curator.

The same Stuff article also reveals that Experience Wellington has not even consulted with local iwi.

Reputation matters

The same issue arises with other City Gallery projects. The Book of Acts 19:14-15 comes to mind, in which some con artists profiteering from exorcisms attempt to cast out a demon from a possessed person in the name of Christ and St. Paul. ‘And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?’

The international art world knows Director Elizabeth Caldwell and Chief Curator Robert Leonard, but it doesn’t give a flying proverbial about Experience Wellington.

The Experience Wellington Annual Report for 2018-2019 noted the importance of the Cindy Sherman and Occulture shows in visitor numbers and revenue across all the attractions they manage, and yet those shows only happened because of City Gallery’s autonomy in negotiating internationally with their cultural peers.

As the Dom-Post reported, Sue Cramer, the curator of the Hilma af Klint exhibition debuting at City Gallery Wellington in December, has serious doubts it would have gone ahead had she and the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm had known this restructuring was going to happen. 

600,000 people visited the Klint exhibition shown at the Guggenheim in New York. It is a very big deal and I’m stunned that Experience Wellington seems dead set on jeopardising such exhibitions in future.

The Wellington City Council Museums Policy document states: ‘Cultural heritage and economic development (mainly tourism) are the two strongest reasons for the Council’s involvement in museums. To some degree these two reasons overlap. The tourism industry strongly values distinctiveness, difference and novelty. The ability to generate these features authentically requires a clear understanding of the culture.’

No art gallery or museum of major standing in Aotearoa or elsewhere has, to my knowledge, disestablished the role of director. It is unheard of and flies against all common-sense best practice.

I don’t see how they can generate that ‘distinctiveness, difference and novelty’ when this proposed restructuring effectively hamstrings that ‘clear understanding of the culture.’

There is also the uncertainty around the security of City Gallery Wellington’s funding. Presently, the gallery – through Experience Wellington, a council-controlled trust – gets 60% of its funding from council (this used to be 70%), and the gallery raises the rest. The role of Director and Chief Curator are absolutely vital in raising that other 40%.

International examples

This is all clown car stuff.

No art gallery or museum of major standing in Aotearoa or elsewhere has, to my knowledge, disestablished the role of director. It is unheard of and flies against all common-sense best practice. 

There is absolutely no reason why multiple museums cannot be effectively managed by a single organisation as in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in the US, and the Tate in the UK, but in both those cases the individual institutions have their own directors.

No doubt all the other institutions under Experience Wellington’s tender ministries are also experiencing similar horrors which haven’t gotten the same public attention because City Gallery Wellington is effectively Experience Wellington’s national flagship. Following international models, these institutions should have their own boards of governance and be allowed to fully evolve into non-profit entities responsible directly to Council.

Keep bombarding Experience Wellington and Wellington City Council with your letters and emails, keep writing to the newspapers and demand the media keep investigating.

The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!

This article by Andrew Paul Wood was first published by The Big Idea, New Zealand.

The Big Idea
About the Author
The Big Idea | Te Aria Nui is New Zealand’s online hub for creative people. Our aim is to support talented, innovative individuals and organisations, back the creative industries and advocate for creativity as an essential ingredient in the cultural and economic wealth of New Zealand. The Big Idea provides resources for the whole creative sector, including those seeking to turn their ‘big ideas’ into viable projects, careers and businesses. We are the go-to destination for work opportunities, event listings, arts stories and creative inspiration. The Big Idea is a not-for-profit trust started in 2001 and is New Zealand’s longest running creative sector website.