Margaret Cranwell has played a major role in shaping how art and collections are perceived, displayed, and engaged in by the public. For twenty-three years she worked for the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery in Napier and the Exhibitions Centre in Hastings. Her services were recognised in this year’s Museums Aotearoa inaugural awards for industry excellence.

BayBuzz caught up with Margaret recently for some Q&A about the evolution of Hawke’s Bay’s preeminent art institutions during her decades-long career.

What was the museum environment like when you took up employment with HBM&AG in the mid 80s?

Exciting, and in the process of changing from a members’ driven focus to one which included the wider community. The museum until that point was largely reliant on members to both finance and staff the institution. However with the gradual move to professionalism–filtering down from the major metropolitan institutions–operating costs began to escalate. Museums began renegotiating their place within their immediate community, exploring new relationships with stakeholders and the public. This was to have an immense affect on every aspect of operations from funding to exhibition programming and collection development.

How were these changes implemented into the HBM&AGs exhibition programme?

In line with other regional institutions HBM&AG began exploring how stories of more regional significance could be interpreted through the Museum’s collections. Two major, long term exhibitions come to mind that were developed during the 1980s and reflect this new direction.

Nga Tukemata was an exhibition of Ngati Kahungunu taonga. Curated by Sandy Adsett, one of NK’s leading artist/educators, the exhibition moved away from the traditional museological approach to one where iwi had more responsibility for interpretation and presentation. This approach, which sounds standard practice today, was considered quite innovative at the time.

The second major exhibition arose from the 50 year commemoration of the 1931 earthquake. A fascinating subject from both social and geological perspectives and one the Museum has revisited several times over the past 20 years. Gaylene Preston’s film Survivors Stories was added in 1996, followed by a technological and interactive revamp which opened earlier this year.

Another important development from around that period was recognition of the region’s unique Art Deco architectural heritage. A small touring exhibition was organised. More importantly, the Museum was directly involved in establishing the Art Deco Trust. It became a leading voice in agitating for the retention of Napier’s key Deco buildings, many of which were under threat of demolition during the 1980s.

How did the HBM&AG and HBEC engage with artists in the community during the 1980s?

Art practice during the 60’s and 70’s challenged all previous conventions as to what art was about. The old hierarchies between art and craft were overturned. NZ’s place in the Pacific, plus recognition of Treaty claims was given voice through the arts. Feminism validated the ‘birthing tent’ and multi-media practices ruled. Everything came up for question including the role of institutions in supporting these changes.

At that time HB was served by two partially rate-payer funded facilities; Hastings Cultural Centre (now HBEC) established in the 1970s, and HBM&AG which had a longer history emerging from its art society base in the 1920s. Both facilities catered for their art communities with fairly conventional and similar programmes. Probably the biggest point of difference being HBM&AG’s allegiance to its membership base, and the ability to draw on its collections for exhibition purposes, whilst HBEC, mandated by its community as a ‘people place,’ covered everything from art exhibitions to flower shows.

Yes, there certainly was a need to introduce the new and stimulating ideas going on in the wider contemporary art scene to the local community.

I understand Napier City Council and Hastings District Council commissioned the Gorbey report in 1989 and this had a significant impact on restructuring these two institutions.

Definitely. Rationalising the delivery of arts between the two facilities through clearer focus was a strong argument, especially as staffing and resourcing costs were escalating at such a pace. And timing of the report also coincided with the referendum on regional unification. The HB Cultural Trust grew out of this spirit of regional co-operation, and was jointly funded by HDC and NCC. The Trust was set up as the governing body with the recommendation that HBM&AG concentrate more on its collections while HBEC take on the role of contemporary art venue for the region.

In 2006 the role of HBCT and its relationship with both HBM&AG and HBEC changed. Can you explain what happened there?

Hawke’s Bay had changed markedly over the 16 years of the Trust’s existence and I think people felt it was time for a reassessment of direction. NCC was keen to proceed with its plans to redevelop HBM&AG, while HDC was in the process of rethinking HBEC’s role within Hastings’ cultural precinct, its relationship to the Community Arts Centre and the newly refurbished Opera House. The decision by the two Councils to continue jointly funding care of the collections while taking back responsibility for the operational functions of their own venues seemed to me a logical step, and one which in the long term I’m sure will re-energise the delivery of arts and culture to the region.

And what do you consider as high points and exhibitions of note?

The opportunity to work with people who had bigger brains than mine; artists, curators, historians and work colleagues–and tap into their knowledge. For me that was definitely an inspirational part of the job. And while it is very difficult to single out any one particular exhibition as they all had some special significance, those with connections to artists linked to the region and its history remain indelibly etched for me. Alongside of course, any project derived from the museum’s extraordinary collections, which are undoubtedly a national treasure and one of the best portals into Hawke’s Bay richly diverse past.

Does your interest in art as a link to history and the region influence your personal preference or response to a work of art?

What really interests me in an art work is its connectedness or relevance to the time it was created. These connections can be motivated by the artist’s interest in social, political or technical issues of the day; and from there on, how they have chosen to translate them into an art work. It’s always interesting to track the source of an idea. And yes, when it comes to engaging the mind and eye of the viewer there is definitely no one way!

Are you still involved in the art world?

I loved my time working with HBMAG and HBEC. The job did give insight to how the art industry operates both locally and nationally which will always be an ongoing interest. Just how the next chapter shapes itself up for me remains to be seen. Without a doubt it will be connected to art in some way. I’m working on it!

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