Tuesday 18 December 2012

Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism

Leonard Mitchell, New Zealand Centennial exhibition 1939

Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism is an ambitiously scaled book. I don't think there is any previous local publication which has comprehensively profiled the conversation between art, illustration and tourism. It shows our art history has avoided the mix between fine art, commercial art and trade development.

Simply put, this book overviews how tourism has been promoted through visual illustration. All the artwork is connected with marketing New Zealand as a venue for national and international tourism.

Stanley Davis, Time 1931

Decades ago many of New Zealand's towns and cities were connected by rail travel. It was our primary means of travel between the regions. The car took over by the mid 1950s and by the late 1960s air-travel became a preferred method of transportation. Rail was king first, though.

The Railways Department had its own Wellington-based art studio. Some of our most best illustrators produced railway banners, travel posters and booklets. Segueing with Railways was the National Publicity Studio developed to work across Government Departments by providing visual material fostering local travel. Railways had first started this notion by promoting tourism in the form of excursions and short-term holidays.

Peter Read, Carefree Holidays c1955
The twelve essays in this book are illuminating. They do not regurgitate earlier research and present a fresh take. Each essay addresses a theme. In thinking about some of the essays I was impressed with how Margaret McClure looks at how tourism developed in tandem with publicity. She shows the effects that aviation had on tourism.

David Pollack evaluates how travel posters related to the international illustration tradition. No one working here had the vision of A.M. Cassandre, Edward McKnight Kauffer or Paul Nash. Their innovative work transformed European travel imagery by inserting the lessons they gained from modern art. In contradistinction, our travel poster artists were visually conservative and much of their work utilises the style of magazine illustration.

Railways Studios, Timaru by the Sea 1936

Richard Wolfe profiles the intermeshing between posters, stamp and booklet design as a way to promote ‘Māoriland’ to a country that was also deemed to be a ‘Playground of the Pacific’. It is fascinating to see how nation's self-branding is reduced to strap lines intended to shape visitor experience.

Mark Derby's essay overviews how influential Māoridom was to the marketing of tourism and how control of Māori representation was not determined by Māori. Mark's contribution to this book could have been given more space for amplification. The inclusion of G.F. Bridgman’s text on Poster Design shows how little researched our design history is. Incidentally, this fact brought to mind the fact that Dr Christopher Thompson could well have contributed to this book. He has more knowledge about design as a form of national marketing than anyone else in this area of art history.

Unknown, Tauranga for Winter Sunshine 1934

Lee Davidson reviews how mountain tourism established New Zealand’s reputation as an adventure playground. Going to alpine zones in trendy clothing has become totally inseparable from the marketing of our sportswear. New Zealand's garment industry sells more sportswear internationally than our boutique fashion houses do.

Gail Ross reveals how illustration became a career path for young artists from as early as 1900 while also mentoring immigrant artists who arrived under the La Trobe scheme. Her essay could have been more extensive as it was ranging over new perspectives on design history. The interface with National Publicity Studio merits much more research, especially now that their archive is more accessible.

Unknown, The Romance of the Rail 1928

Warren Feeney presents a fact often forgotten - ‘The fine arts in New Zealand have always sustained a mutual and beneficial relationship with commercial art.’ Warren’s position is revisionist and all the more impressive because of this approach. I like the way he takes a provocative position to break down the high/low art relationship between painting and illustration. Look at this sentence -‘By the 1950s, the fine arts began to catch up with commercial art.’ I doubt whether I would have read statement that in any New Zealand art book a generation ago.

Barry Hancox indicates that photography and tourist publicity have always intersected here. Late 19th century landscape photography by artists such as Daniel Louis Mundy predated tourist art but showed a way of looking that later influenced it. The conversation between pictorialism and illustrative design is only just beginning to be analysed.

Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism deserves close study. It gathers images few people will have encountered outside archives or museums. They have probably never encountered them in a public art gallery. No big exhibition of this material has been attempted. This book is as much about art as it is about New Zealand's promotion of visual identity.

Alan Collins, Night travel is easy c1950

Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart, Dave Bamford
Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism
Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson 2012
ISBN 978 1 877517 77 8

Peter Alsop informs me that this book is available from all leading bookstores, and online with a 10% discount and free postage within New Zealand from www.sellingthedream.co.nz

Monday 10 December 2012

Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art

The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art
Of the collection catalogues I studied this year one that I return to is a testament to what collecting can mean when it is both assiduous and informed. Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art overviews this Hawaii-based collection of over 1,000 items. The Blackburn collection is considered the pre-eminent private collection of Polynesian art.

It is likely that such a collection can never be duplicated again because it focuses on artworks of the highest artistic rarity and quality. Many of the items are also amongst the earliest known examples. When I first saw this catalogue I instantly recognised that only a few public collections hold comparable material. The intelligence of the collector’s acquisition strategy is everywhere evident; it is as if they only decided to acquire the best of the best.

The items presented in Polynesia come from New Zealand, the Austral Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Futuna, Hawaii, Malden Island, Easter Island, Rennell Island, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and the Tuamotus, and other locations. This taxonomic approach is impressive because it very difficult to initiate such a collection on such a comprehensive basis. When the Blackburns began collecting decades ago, such broadness was still possible. It would be unachievable to assemble similarly today.

The Blackburn’s have been close friends of Adrienne Kaeppler for many years and, as the curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, she was arguably one of the most experienced scholars to write the collection catalogue. Had he been able to contribute, Professor Roger Neich could have beneficially contributed. This is the most impressive catalogue because it is so far-reaching in its information.

Adrienne has commented, 'This is probably the best private collection of Polynesia in the world….They are not just outstanding pieces, but representative objects. It's very unusual for a private collector to look for so many different things.'

I met Mark and Carolyn Blackburn at a Pacific Arts Association conference in Rarotonga a couple of years back. I told them that I believed they had assembled the most important private collection of Polynesian art since that established by William Oldman (1879-1949). The New Zealand government in July 1948 purchased Oldman’s collection. Parts of the collection are now distributed between the Museum of New Zealand, Auckland Museum, Canterbury Museum and Otago Museum.

I certainly hope that the Blackburn collection can remain together because this is what curators call ‘a serious collection’. The Blackburns kept files about all their acquisitions and they extensively read all the literature – be it historical, modern or contemporary. Their collection catalogue is not widely available in New Zealand; four copies are held at Auckland Libraries. I recommend this wonderful book.

To read an interview with Mark Blackburn

To sample what is held in the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection

Adrienne Kaeppler
Polynesia: the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn collection of Polynesian art
Honolulu: Distributed by the University of Hawai’i Press, 2010
ISBN 9781883528386

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Gallery garage sales - then and now

Last week in our weekly staff newsletter I shared a link to this post by artist and designer Kelli Anderson, about her involvement in Martha Rosler's exhibition Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA. Anderson designed a newspaper available as part of the exhibition, which took the form of a real-life gigantic garage sale in MoMA's atrium.

One of our research librarians replied to let me know that the Gallery once held its own garage-sale-as-exhibition - exactly 37 years ago to the day!

On 5 December 1975 artist David Mealing's week-long exhibition Jumble Sale opened at the Gallery. You can read about the kerfuffle it caused, and Wystan Curnow's opinion on its overall effect, on pages 29-30 of this Gallery Quarterly.

Incidentally, David Mealing is now curator and manager of the NZ Cricket Museum in Wellington.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Staff spotlight: Scott Everson

As exhibitions designer and coordinator, Scott is part of the Collections team responsible for handling the artworks and physically delivering the exhibitions at the Gallery.

He works closely with curators, conservators, technicians and artists to develop the display and look of the gallery spaces, as well as overseeing their installation… which can involve anything from deciding where to hang a painting, to figuring out how to secure 70 live goldfish into the passenger seats of a chartered plane!
What’s the best part of your job?
The variety that comes from working with art and artists is always really exciting and inspirational. I think it's a real privilege to be part of what we do at the Gallery. Dealing with such interesting and culturally significant items while collaborating with talented people never really gets old.
What are the challenges?
Beside the regular practical and technical ones, working with content that many people, not just the artist, are so passionate about is a pretty delicate exercise at times. Concepts and practicality or ideal aesthetics don't always align, so establishing that level of mutual trust required to come up with a compromise that responds to everyone's needs can take a lot of work, particularly when you're working off plans and drawings rather than with the actual piece in a finished gallery space.
How do you want people to react when they walk into a space you’ve designed?
It really depends on the type of show and artwork we're displaying. Often the best exhibition design is one that only a few people might notice. Generally if we've got it right I'd hope visitors’ reactions and feelings will be driven by or at least align with the art on display and what the artists or curators originally wanted to communicate or provoke. Hopefully the exhibition design just helps this along a bit, enhancing the experience.
Out of all the shows you’ve worked on, which one(s) stand out as being your favourite?
I definitely could never pick one, that’s kind of like having to pick an all time favourite song and I'd probably come up with a different answer each day of the week. There are some like Yinka Shonibare MBE or For Keeps at the old NEW Gallery that still stand out because I'm such a fan of the elegant and slickly produced art that was in them.
With shows like the Julian & Josie Robertson Promised Gift and Degas to Dalí it's really humbling and memorable to be involved with such historically impressive and valuable pieces, while others like the Walters Prize or some of our large scale commissions are cool just because of the professional relationships and processes it took to deliver them.
We've just opened Who Shot Rock & Roll so of course that sticks out. I've always spent a lot of time going to live gigs so there's a lot of stuff in there that interests me. Gail Buckland (curator) and Roger Taberner (coordinating curator) were great to work with, giving me a lot of freedom to have some fun with the design and layout.
What are your interests outside of work?
I've got three old American cars that keep me entertained and poor when I'm not watching friends’ bands at some local dive bar. Actually, the only roadworthy car we've got at the moment is a ‘77 Chevy Camaro with a bit of drag racing history; it makes grocery shopping and running errands fun. Although they're gathering dust right now, I've also got a ‘51 Chevrolet I've been restoring and customising for way too long and a ‘51 Mercury Coupe which is more pile of rusty metal than vehicle at the moment.
Messing around with them in the garage is a good distraction if I'm getting too tied up in an exhibition, but for me there's also a real similarity with the kind of form versus function problem-solving and satisfaction I get from working on shows at the Gallery.