How do you get into Te Papa’s national art collection, asks MARK AMERY, of Toi Te Papa’s ‘Recent Acquisitions’.

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IF YOU WANT an impression of what art history will soon hold dear, Te Papa’s ‘Recent Acquisitions’ is a good place to start. Part of Toi Te Papa, their permanent art showcase, it’s a showing of contemporary artwork recently added to the collection which changes half yearly.

Dating largely from 2004 and 2005, the current selection (up since June) is a time capsule of the recent past. It provides an odd, small jump back in time for those who keenly follow contemporary art: to a time when this work was, as they say, hot: a perky Peter Stitchbury portrait here, a small dreamy Saskia Leek there.

For most people however it provides a small but strong introduction to some recent strands in contemporary art. In particular works by Yuk King Tan, Mladen Bizumic, Shane Cotton and Sean Kerr touch off the world around them in a way that charges up the space between the personal and public.

We get to play judge as to whether Te Papa’s curators have got it right in selecting work which will the fascinate beyond its moment of impact. For me Brendon Wilkinson’s model railway station set, with its grafitti and staged fights felt fresh back on first show, but now seems a trifle empty of enduring ideas next to the work he has produced since. Did Te Papa get excited too early? (as with Tan’s series, it would help if awkward barriers didn’t make it impossible to get close enough to the work). Jim Speers’ lightbox works, with their palette of saturated colour were gorgeous back in the day, but all over again appear like apartment furniture. Will their moment come again?

It’s pleasing to see the politics of collection continue to be given presence in the gallery, and on Te Papa’s website you’ll find reproductions of less than a handful of other recent acquisitions. The text for ‘Recent Acquisitions’ states that Te Papa choose to collect “key works by significant contemporary artists”. The works here “exemplify particular directions in art-making in New Zealand” and “characterise definitive moments in an artist’s career.” Those moments are less to do with the artist as the work’s critical and curatorial reception. Yet ultimately a work of art is purchased because some one really wants it. As former National Gallery Director Luit Bieringa’s legacy of a rich collection of photography attests, collecting is all about personal passion.

My interest piqued, I wanted to know more. On the website I read that a three yearly acquisitions strategy is reviewed annually. Would this give artists’ some clues as to the sort of work they should produce to ensure themselves a place in history? No such luck. While it says it “sets out the desired outcomes, strategy, directions, and priorities” the exhibition text above is more detailed.

Through a search on the website I find annual reports up until 2006 with appendices listing works purchased and total amounts spent. These makes for interesting reading. Provided with a copy of this year’s annual report, I note a big buy up of Peter Black photography, and Christine Webster’s ‘Black Carnival ‘series, whetting the appetite for their re-exhibition.

Since 2001 the museum has received $3 million annually for acquisitions across all collections. Te Papa tell me this is “very generous” but what it means for contemporary art depends on the priorities – between, say, another major McCahon or contemporary work. And how this compares comparatively to the old National Art Gallery’s budget I’m not aware. Te Papa did comment however that the proportion of art acquisitions against total budget has been decreasing in the last few years as other collection area acquisitions have been increasing. In 2003/04 art acquisitions accounted for 86% of the funding, and in 2005/06 50%.

So how much personal influence do Te Papa’s five art curators have? Te Papa communications responded that Director of Art and Collection Services Jonathan Mane Wheoki “encourages his curators to take a holistic view of their portfolios and to exercise responsibility and discrimination in their roles in building a representative and comprehensive art collection for the people of New Zealand.”

If that leaves you none the wiser you might like to ask them in person: Charlotte Huddleston (Contemporary Art), Megan Tamati-Quennell (Contemporary Maori and Indigenous Art), Athol McCredie (Photography). Sean Mallon (Senior Pacific Curator), Huhana Smith (Senior Curator Matauranga Maori) and Angela Lassig, (Senior Curator History).

Be nice, they’re hard at work making history.

Recent Acquisitions, Toi Te Papa Art of the Nation, Te Papa.