07 September 2011

Auckland's new old art gallery

The new wing, Auckland Art Gallery
On Saturday I ventured into downtown Auckland on the train from Onehunga to pay a visit to the refurbished Auckland Art Gallery after its three year closure. While a small part of me resents the loss of the fountain in the exterior courtyard that so fascinated me as a child, the extra space and the $120m new extension to the Victorian building is undoubtedly impressive. It was also pleasing to see so many Aucklanders visiting the gallery on its first day - possibly the busiest day in the gallery's history?

The new spaces are strikingly modern and upmarket, but the interior contrast between new and old is not jarring. From the outside the shift from stonemasonry to ultra-modern might be problematic, but realistically there isn't much of a vantage point to view the whole structure, because the building stretches along the narrow Kitchener Street.

The original gallery building

Three new art installations impressed me on my first visit: Choi Jeong Hwa's Flower Chandelier and Red, and Jeppe Hein's Long Modified Bench Auckland.  These definitely have the potential to become attractions in their own right, and it's only a pity that a delightful work like Flower Chandelier will only be on display in the gallery for a year.  I expect its constantly inflating and deflating petals will need patching up after a full year of display.

'Flower Chandelier'

'Long Modified Bench Auckland'

Exterior roof detail
As for the conventional art collections, the building displays a surprisingly impressive range of overseas and New Zealand material. Julian and Josie Robertson's magnanimous Promised Gift collection, which includes a sumptuous range of Picassos and other greats, will form the backbone of the expanding overseas collection and enable the gallery to attract a superior range of visiting exhibitions in future. But there's also an eye-opening range of European art that rivals many of the smaller galleries of Europe, including a splendid village scene by Brueghel and plenty of Raphael engravings.  Sure, there's also a pretentious conceptual art space upstairs too, but it's not excessive.

The refurbished Art Gallery will boost Auckland's status as a city that respects culture, and will act as a popular tourist attraction too.  I will definitely be paying another visit to its collections the next time I'm up in Auckland, because there's still plenty more to see. It's heartening to think that Auckland finally has an art gallery that can be considered world class.
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