After years of fundraising, packing, building, and living out of boxes in temporary accommodation the MTG has opened to the public. And the gnashing of teeth has begun.
The fanfare is slow in coming, the bricks are being thrown and the jewel in Hawke’s Bay’s crown is losing its patina before we’ve barely got it out of the wrapping. “Uninspiring” is a word often heard … sometimes describing the new museum and its innards, sometimes the public bun fight.
Some of the sturm und drang comes from the shared ownership of the collection the MTG was built to house.
Some comes from grumpy public and local media stirring the pot, and smacks of a provincial tall-poppy syndrome.
Potentially some comes from political maneuvering. This is afterall the Year of the Great Amalgamation Debate.
The issues include the museum’s storage capacity, consternation around the name, a muddle in the expected visitor numbers, the entry fee, the poor ranking on online tourism portal Trip Advisor (13th out of 14 Napier attractions), divergent visions around contemporary museum goers and their needs and expectations (e.g., more digital interactivity), the management style of director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, and the ultimate lines of accountability for the institution.
A quick-fire review commissioned by the Napier City Council (NCC) with a promised public-release date of late April will address some, but probably not all, of these matters.
Who’s in charge?
At its core the MTG project was meant to “build a home worthy of our collections and exhibitions”. What does this mean in reality? Is it simply a box full of boxes?
An awkward structure of stakeholders means there are inevitably contrasting voices in the mix. Two councils are involved financially (NCC and HDC); a third if you count the HB Regional Council, which donated $2.5 million during the fundraising drive. The HB Museums Trust is the caretaker of the collection of artefacts owned by the people of Hawke’s Bay. The MTG Foundation, a community fundraising vehicle tasked with buying new works. And last but not least, the museum director, who sets the direction and style for what the public actually views.
Complicating matters, the opening of the new MTG coincided with Napier’s mayor and chief executive both retiring, and the people currently at the helm have varying degrees of history with the project, with plenty of out-clauses when it comes to taking responsibility.
Napier City Mayor, Bill Dalton, who appointed himself onto the Museums Trust when the fracas began, says, “My council has been given a hospital pass on this. There’s a basic conflict in the way the museum structure is organised and it should have been resolved years ago. The Museums Trust wants to grow and grow their collection and nothing is ever taken away so we have storage issues.”
Museum director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, who has been in the role since 2006 explains the importance of this growth.
“We are the only museum in New Zealand that gets no acquisition funds from its council. Almost all our pieces are donations, I would say 90%, and we do keep developing the collection. To people who say we should stop, I say: ‘You give me a list of which generations don’t get to have a record of their era’.”
“For twenty years potential donors have known the space was too small, and so have held off because of storage problems. A lot of people have come to us recently with their treasured items and they’ve given them in confidence to a top class institution in which things will be properly packed, stored and displayed.”
Lloyd Jenkins adds, “We are aware of funds and of future growth, but we are also acutely aware of our responsibility to the people of Hawke’s Bay as the home of their stories.”
If MTG is a home, then NCC and HDC are mum and dad squabbling over where to put the valuables.
Administered by the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, of which Barbara Arnott is acting chair, the two councils hold equal shares in the Hawke’s Bay collection, a $43 million anthology of our social history dating as far back as the early days of our nationhood. Included in its archive is the only remaining first-hand account of the signing of the treaty at Waitangi. It is the fifth most valuable collection in New Zealand.
“The collection is rich and complicated and it really does reflect Hawke’s Bay people and what we think about the world,” explains Lloyd Jenkins.
That said, as the dispute has continued, his views seem increasingly at odds with those of his ultimate employer, Mayor Dalton, who asks (as reported in the DomPost): “Is our collection still relevant to the Hawke’s Bay story? Is a vast textile collection appropriate for the Hawke’s Bay Museum?”
At the root of keeping the collection safe and secure is the need for communication and joined-up thinking around its care. But no one agrees on how best to store the chattels.
Mayor Bill Dalton: “When (the MTG) was first designed it was intended the entire collection would go back in. It came out didn’t it? And from a much smaller area. Then the collection was packed in substantial wooden crates to make sure no damage happened in transit or in temporary storage … The issue now is the building that was designed was never intended to have the items stored in crates and I dispute the fact we need to store the collection that way.”
Lloyd Jenkins: “We expected all along that the collection was going to be packed (in specially made earthquake-safe crates). The confusion may lie in the notion that it’d be unpacked. But it would be a big mistake to go back to 20 year-old [storage] practices.
Bill Dalton insists the practice is a case of belts and braces.
“The building is at 100% of building regulation for earthquake protection. The Museum Director advises us this is best practice now. But to me it’s like inviting friends over to a 100% earthquake proof home and getting them to wear hardhats and overalls. We’ve got a collection we’re protecting as if it’s the crown jewels. I am not an expert in museums, but it feels like boxing overkill!”
Writing to its patrons, the MTG Foundation cautions: “We would be concerned if there were any suggestions to reduce the number of items in the collection, or indeed to ‘down grade’ the recently upgraded conditions of storage of items in order to find a solution to the current problem.
The lack of common understanding goes beyond Dalton and Lloyd Jenkins.
Mayor Lawrence Yule says he was never told the rebuilt museum would be too small to fit the full collection. “If someone had told me a year ago, I would have done something and we would have planned for it. The feasibility that was done on this said they would have room and that there would be room for growth.”
In early February Yule was told the collection didn’t fit in the new building constructed to house it, and that part of the collection would need to be stored elsewhere. First, Yule was told (by new NCC chief executive Wayne Jack) that 40% fitted in the MTG, then it was 50% (Neil Fergus). When BayBuzz enquired two weeks later, it had grown to 60% (Jack).
“A combination of mistakes means the collection can’t be housed in one place and we have never been told. The rent on an additional space, staff at two locations – it is unplanned for and if it was the plan then where is the financial modelling for that?” says Yule.
HDC’s financial dog in the fight is the $1 million it donated during the original fundraising drive, plus the $463,00 it contributes each year to the upkeep of the collection (with NCC giving another $463,000).
Barbara Arnott, Napier mayor during the build and current acting chair of the Museums Trust says the storage issue is two-fold. “Part of each room is used for infrastructure (air conditioning ducts) and plant rooms, so that consumed space. And, nobody knew until they started.”
Some say the impending shortfall was signaled to then-CEO Neil Taylor by the architect before construction even began. Mr Taylor refused comment to BayBuzz, saying he was no longer the chief executive and didn’t want to talk about the MTG. Current NCC staff say it was in the later stages when the fit out for services was being done that council officers realised the space was significantly smaller than it had been on the plans.
Design manager John Wright was Napier City Council’s man on the ground during the build. He oversaw the build, of which Gemco were the contractors. When asked he said he was unable to comment on the issues at the Museum. Further up the line BayBuzz was told the MTG’s exact cubic metre capacity was as yet unknown and that Wright was still working out how big the place is.
The MTG Foundation seems relaxed about the situation: “The Board has no immediate concerns over the safety and security of the balance of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection that is stored offsite from the new MTG building.”
The marketing material produced at the time and distributed to potential funders claimed “our collections have outgrown the available space: our need for more room has become great”, and “A large, flexible, dedicated collection store provides a high standard of care for the current collection, with room left for further growth.”
Bruce Martin was the chair of the HB Museums Trust until he completed a three-year-term 15 months ago. “I decided at that point that I didn’t want to make myself available for another term.” Now that the build is complete, Martin is left confused about whether or not it’s fit for purpose. He says he hasn’t visited the MTG.
“All I can say is that all the collection was housed in the HBMAG – it was taken out because of the build, then it was meant to be put in to an enlarged and enhanced complex. It all came out; it’s now a larger complex and I can’t understand why it all can’t go back in.”
NCC chief executive Wayne Jack is now taking charge and says there are things he would have done differently if he had been in the position during the build. He won’t be pressed on what exactly.
“The MTG delivers what it was intended to – exhibitions, and arts and culture – and it does that well. The main thing is collection protection and the levels of risk. Things (items in the collection) that are of strategic importance, you want to protect at a high level, other pieces don’t need that.”
As to the building itself, Johanna Mouat, acting chairman of the MTG Foundation, noted to BayBuzz that the design had to contend with key constraints, such as the physical size of the overall property and the important need to protect “two gems” of significant importance – the Guy Natusch-designed Century Theatre and the original Louis Hay gallery. A ‘purpose-built’ building might have offered more capacity and flexibility, but was simply not an option.
Others dispute that, pointing out that NCC rejected a proposal to use the Ahuriri-located historic Rothman’s Tobacco Building as a home with greater capacity and potential.
“What’s an MTG?”
Another bugbear for some is the name of the museum, which has been the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, or HBMAG, since 1931. Now it’s MTG (standing for Museum, Theatre and Gallery), a name proposed by Auckland agency Beehive Creative.
“There was a consultation process using small focus groups and particularly with iwi regarding the te reo name (Tai Ahuriri). There were other names looked at and the final decision was made in a meeting with Napier City Council.”
Beehive Creative, led by Justin Clow and Brenda Saris, keeps a low profile. Cyber-stalk them and you’ll find nothing. Clow explains that he and Lloyd Jenkins have known each other for a long time, and that when the opportunity arose to pitch for the work Clow leapt at it.
“I’ve known Douglas for years. I did some work with him when he was at Unitec (where Lloyd Jenkins served from 1992 as a design lecturer). I am very into ‘who you know’; it means you can trust them, you have experience with them.”
Brenda Saris explains how the name came about:
“The name actually came from the building, the architecture. There are three parts to the complex, the museum, the theatre and the gallery, so it all fits into place quite beautifully. MTG is also an acronym for ‘meeting’, and the building is a meeting of ideas, a meeting of objects, a meeting of cultures and of people.”
Lloyd Jenkins says it was a calculated decision to appoint an agency from outside the area. “Yes, we did go outside of the area. That is because we felt there were too many preconceived ideas of what we were and what we might be.”
Anything other than a literal moniker hasn’t got a strong history in the Bay. The Hawke’s Bay Opera House is just that, the Regional Sports Park the same, a failed attempt at naming the Hawke’s Bay Exhibition Centre Te Ara Rau means that space is now quite simply the Hastings City Art Gallery. HBMAG hardly had a ring to it and at least MTG takes in the importance of the Century Theatre, architecturally the jewel within the jewel.
“Most people like the name – but some people just don’t like change,” Lloyd Jenkins says.
The wee numbers
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins calls the MTG a showcase of the best of Hawke’s Bay.
“It makes people feel part of the contemporary world. This is a place full of possibilities. We are a mix of the best of local history and of the bigger world experience. We want people to be in here and it gives people a space of their own in the city.”
A sign of success would certainly be doors thrown open and visitors thronging through. Ratepayers’money has provided for not just a home for the collection but a window through which the people of Hawke’s Bay can see it. Exact expected numbers are hard to nail down and the figure of 690,000 flagged by local media has been called a mistake and put down Lloyd Jenkins as a “clerical error”. He says he is investigating how that happened.
Wayne Jack explains that about a third of people who enter the building are ‘turn arounds’. That is they turn around and walk out when they find it costs $15 to get into the MTG.
“The visitor numbers (in the 10-year plan) were just a mistake, we didn’t really check the basis, but I’m not going to point a finger. There’s been a number of errors across a number of areas,” Jack says.
“We don’t measure people paying, we measure people who enter the building; but I am more interested in how many people enter the building and then use the exhibitions.”
Jack’s guesstimate is that the actual visitor numbers are pretty much on track, “slightly below but within the expected.” Bill Dalton disagrees. “No, we’re not tracking to target, we’re below that … and we need to see why.”
Trip Advisor, the website that lets people rank various tourist attractions, throws up a whole raft of criticism around the MTG. A main theme is the entry fee.
Lloyd Jenkins says, “The entry fee has always been $10. Every year we have come under pressure to adjust it for inflation, and we haven’t. But NCC is driven by revenue and income. The [entry fee] decision was made by the council.”
He does say he would prefer not to charge people but that economics are a reality. “There is no gallery director in the world who wants a charge on their door. I want everyone in Hawke’s Bay to come through the doors and to do so regularly.”
Dalton, who was chair of NCC’s finance committee confirms the pricing and the structure were something the council agreed at the time.
“Put into figures it starts to make the budget look okay and so you approve it, but maybe it wasn’t the right decision.”
The museum director
As reported above, it appears that Lloyd Jenkins and Mayor Dalton don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues like the nature and storage of the collection. And it is the NCC, which pays the operating expenses of the museum, that through its CEO, Wayne Jack, ultimately judges the museum director’s performance.
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has directed the museum since 2006. He’s noted for his sophistication, scholarship, wit (often acerbic), and creative leadership. Less mentioned is his managerial nous.
Those involved in the actual construction of the new museum minimise Lloyd Jenkins’ role. Darren Diack, managing director of Gemco, prime contractor for the project, notes that the museum was completed “on time and under budget”. He adds: “The Napier City Council built the museum, not Douglas Lloyd Jenkins. Our client was the Napier City Council; we took all instructions from them. Douglas and his staff had very little if any input during the construction phase.”
But as a day-to-day manager, Lloyd Jenkins has his critics. There has been significant turnover in museum staff in recent times, some disgruntled, some having signed non-disclosure agreements. Says Lloyd Jenkins, “Part of my job is to keep staff focused and philosophical and at the moment they are tired and exhausted, they have a lot of accumulated leave. But what people need to realise is that our staff are much admired by other museums. I have an excellent team.”
Sour grapes, exhaustion, changing expectations, or important managerial shortcomings to be addressed? Time will tell.
But meantime, in the midst of the turmoil, the museum’s private sector patrons recently gave Lloyd Jenkins their vote of confidence. Wrote the MTG Foundation: “We have confidence in the past (and present) professionalism of the MTG Director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and the Collections Manager Sara Browne in their care and protection of the collection at all times.” And Chairman Johanna Mouat commented to BayBuzz: “There are few people in New Zealand who could understand and interpret our collection as well as Douglas.”
Many of these issues will be the subject of NCC’s up-coming review.
Barbara Arnott proudly defends the building that has been called her pet project, telling BayBuzz: “The people who gave towards the project have got more than bang for their buck. The MTG is something the whole of Hawke’s Bay should be proud of; it has state-of-the-art storage; it can hold itself proud in the whole of New Zealand.”
And while some still question the wisdom of an $18 million investment into “an edifice with narrow appeal” that will require ongoing subsidy, that question is moot … MTG is here to stay!
Johanna Mouat wants people to give the new museum a chance … “there’s been a lot of change … the raw material is there … we have a significant asset … it needs better marketing.”
Bill Dalton says: “We’ll be looking at the relevance of the collection; which exhibitions we should be having and how many; staff levels; entry price, making sure it’s accessible and available to ratepayers, because at the moment it is seriously too steep.”
Wayne Jack has now taken charge of the situation and will see it through to its conclusion. “The review was always part of the plan. The objectives have been expanded because we have inherited storage issues.”
Jack confirms the review will be external and independent, and findings will be made public. “We are working to an April deadline but it will depend on the capacity of the external personnel.”
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, the man at the helm welcomes the review and says he will “have a few things to say” when the findings are in. For now, he gets the last word:
“For me it’s not just a job. I am totally committed to this. I came here because I saw a collection that had been neglected, and that had amazing potential. I always said I wasn’t just here to build the building.
“Just you wait. We’ve got some sensational stuff still to come. I’m proud of MTG Hawke’s Bay, I want to front it for a long time yet.”