Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, Manager of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, sat down with BayBuzz’s Mark Sweet and Brooks Belford for a freewheeling discussion of HB arts and Museum’s role therein. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
What’s shaping the future of the arts in Hawke’s Bay?
One thing is the realization that HB isn’t as far away from the rest of the country as people once thought. Also the arts themselves are less highly centralized than they were. Regional centres like HB are now places people can realistically have art careers. The cost of living in the big cities is forcing people out, and HB’s got a good reputation for the arts and an increasing number of professional artists are starting to find a place down here. And we’ve got two galleries, one here in Napier, the other in Hastings, which support the artists and the professional viewing audience.
How will redevelopment of the Museum affect the community?
One thing about HBMAG is we do very strong work, and that’s often acknowledged by other museums in the sector, but we’re in a dowdy old building. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who say to me ‘Where are you located?’ Even locals. A flagship building will change that. We know from experience that a new building energises the arts sector. Look at the impact it’s had in New Plymouth or Christchurch. A better viewing place will have a real impact on visitor numbers and that sort of thing has real impact on the economic viability of the community. Napier’s ready for a good strong building that makes a claim for this city because it’s been very low key for a long time in terms of new buildings.
You’ve been using the language of business: “products,” “visitor numbers,” etc.
Are you comfortable with this business focus?
I come from an academic background and my connections are principally to design and architecture and both of those are very much businesses. The idea of art being a business is relatively new to most artists. When I first came here the staff used to look at me because I used the word ‘shows’ instead of exhibitions. They used to think it was totally over-the-top and theatrical, but it is theater. We’ve got 11 new shows a year. Each one is a total performance with an opening curtain and a closing curtain.
Sounds like you’re trying to dilute the seriousness and make it more entertainment.
Well no. If anything, I think that ‘Museum as Entertainment’ hasn’t really worked. NZ needs more depth and scholarship. It doesn’t need another whiz bang Te Papa type museum. What we try very hard to do is offer shows that work at every level. So any show also has a program for children. The person that knows nothing about art will be able to read the labels and feel they’ve learned something. And the person that knows a lot about art might buy the catalogue and say ‘Oh! There are some new ideas in here.’ This approach is no less serious than other museums, but with the HBMAG there may be some wit and irony in the mix. For example, if you want to tell the story of feminism in NZ you can do it with some black and white political photographs but you can also do it with frocks. Now frocks are way more entertaining but they’re no less serious, and I suppose that’s what we’re doing.
That humorous debate about intellectualism staged at the Century Theater was quite a smart way of extending the influence of the John Reynolds exhibition.
You know there are lots of reasons to come to the art gallery. It can be for an hysterically funny debate. In Raising Boys, our ceramic show, there’s a rumor that it has obscene material in it. There is AN erotic drawing in it. But, you know, people are coming to the gallery based on that rumor. Just so long as people know we’re here and are coming in to look. We are not trying to be a run of the mill contemporary gallery. A HB show connects to place. It connects to the past. I’m interested in history. We connect HB to itself, to NZ culture and to the big wide world. As a writer, I’ve always written stuff that anyone can read. As a gallery, I want to do stuff that anyone can see. I’m an educator at heart.
I suppose you’re now a publisher too…
We publish much more than most museums of our size and that’s because we want a permanent record. That’s one of the ways we can support artists. We can say ‘Here’s the book’ and that’s a great thing for an artist to be able to have. And it means that the scholarship that goes into our exhibitions isn’t lost. It can be seen all across the country. Now to be able to afford that, we normally have to form a relationship with a patrons’ group, or Creative New Zealand, or a corporate supporter.
So are you also saying that part of the Museum’s role is to help establish a base level of support for HB artists themselves?
If, as a society, in HB we decide we want artists, then we have to put some support structure in place. We need to support the artist in the community and the elements in the community that are interested in art. We also educate and inform and support the artists’ client base as well. If we do an exhibition of someone not particularly well known, then the community should have faith that this artist is worth looking at. We’re a base line.
We have a list of Hawke’s Bay artists. They are artists who were either born here, have lived here for a significant amount of time, or are residents here. There are an awful lot of HB artists who don’t live here any longer. I think one of the really big challenges we’ve got — and it’s not just in the arts — is that talented young people leave at 20 to go to university. They need to leave because they need that experience. We keep working with them even when they’re away. A very good example is photographer Joyce Campbell. She’s someone we’ll keep in touch with and keep working with because that’s how you connect back to Hawke’s Bay.
At the moment, there is a good basis of art out there but we’d like to see it growing. A really good art gallery is a way to help that process and get people back. And also to draw other people to Hawke’s Bay. There’s a lot of ‘arts & culture’ tourists and they’re not just looking for Art Deco, or wine or food, or art. It’s the combination of the four and we can do all four in Hawke’s Bay.
Art Deco used to be the Holy Grail around here. How relevant is it today?
I’ve always thought that HB in general and Napier specifically were in danger of over focusing on Art Deco because in fact this is a very strong architectural region. For example you’ve got the Arts & Crafts style with James Chapman Taylor, or the modernists John Scott or Guy Natusch. All of them have big, national reputations. Napier can create a reputation as a center of architecture, wine & food. That’s the model they used in Tasmania and it’s been incredibly successful. The Art Deco audience, to my mind, is an aging one.
And does Art Deco have any impact on the art that contemporary artists make?
I don’t think it does for a moment.
So are you going to see the new building to completion?
That’s one of the big reasons I came really. Having spent the last 10 years of my life writing architectural criticism, I thought here’s my chance to be involved in an actual physical building. I would like to think that it will be done in 2 or 3 years.
In time for the Rugby World Cup?
Yes. Well, the wives have got to do something while the men are at the game.
I always say that art and culture would disappear if we stop producing women over 50.
What are some of the other reasons you came here?
I did my first project in this gallery in 1997 as an independent curator thanks to the incredible Margaret Cranwell. I did three or four shows and I believed there was this incredible potential to really take this place into the national hierarchy of galleries in part because of the nature of the collections. I just thought it was this gem. Here was a resource of treasures that was kind of slipping out of the consciousness of the rest of the country and it didn’t need to. So it was that challenge. I’ve enjoyed it. The community is very supportive and we have strong support from both Napier and Hastings Councils so it’s a good working environment.