Rau rangatira mā, e kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei,
tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou.
Kia ora tātou katoa.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, warm greetings to you all.
It is a great pleasure for David and me to be here this evening. We are delighted to be able to join you in celebrating the re-opening of our newly refreshed and revitalised art gallery. When a building has been a part of Wellington life for as long as this one, there is always great interest in any changes that are made.
This building has long had a special place in the hearts of Wellingtonians. Back in the days when it was the Wellington Public Library, many children were introduced to the magic and wonder of books here. When the library moved out and City Gallery moved in, the building became a showcase for stories of a different kind.
Like our literature, movies and music, New Zealand art has much to say about what it means to be a New Zealander and our relationship with the world. None more so than the works that we’ve sent to the Venice Biennale over the years.
Choosing to examine New Zealand’s identity in art with the ‘This Is New Zealand’ exhibition is a bold re-opening statement from City Gallery. It asserts the importance of art in defining our identity, while asking us to consider the validity of these representations of our culture.
The curators have described it as a ‘warts’n’all’ compilation’. I’m encouraged by that because our culture is made up of many strands and layers. Together they make up the rich fabric of Aotearoa New Zealand. Ours is a nation of migrants and we all have our different identities and traditions - there is no single, monolithic Kiwi culture.
I think back to 1984, to a milestone in our understanding of the intersection of art and culture – when the Te Māori exhibition went out into the world, asserting our national pride in the distinct identity of tangata whenua. It was a revelation for many New Zealanders, as well.
I think of the creativity that emerges from the intersections between our diverse communities, and enriches our lives in music, art, film, literature.
I think about how the arts have been some of the most potent ways individuals have been able to declare their point of difference and assert a unique take on the world.
Since 2001 New Zealand’s participation at the Venice Biennale, the world’s largest and most important contemporary-art show, has provided an international platform for our artists. Our exhibitions have challenged our perceptions of ourselves, shocked us, made us think, and made us proud – often at the same time.
David and I experienced enormous pride and excitement when we first visited the Biennale in 2011 and saw Michael Parekowhai’s monumental and astounding exhibition On first looking at Chapman’s Homer. And last year I had the great privilege of returning to Venice to open Lisa Reihana’s stunning exhibition, Emissaries.
I felt an immense sense of pride that this extraordinary artwork had been created by a New Zealander, and was delighted that it received rave reviews. I also realised that I was being asked to consider our history from a different angle, to put aside what I thought I knew and look at the past in a new way.
Lisa’s work, like the works of the former Biennale artists Michael Stevenson, Michael Parekowhai and Simon Denny that are on display in this show, contest the notion of a singular national perspective. One of the great services our artists provide is their determination to skewer preconceived ideas and ask the hard questions.
I congratulate City Gallery for bringing together such a diverse range of the works that have represented us, taught us about ourselves and often challenged us nationally and internationally over the past 80 years.
I’m expecting to be fascinated and challenged by them and I’m looking forward to hearing the discussions that arise afterwards.
I hope those discussions include the importance of art, and of places like City Gallery, in the cultural fabric of our society. So often our national conversations around arts and culture focus solely on the amount of money being spent and the measurement of the economic benefit that accrues.
If we are using ‘This is New Zealand’ as an opportunity to examine the New Zealand psyche, perhaps we can give some thought to how we move beyond that position. The dollar is only one measurement of the value of the arts.
Art after all is for everybody. It’s in our hearts, it’s in our souls. It’s made to be seen, talked about, argued over, liked and disliked, loved and hated.
It is ironic and disappointing that visiting an art gallery for free is viewed as elitist, while paying to attend a rugby game is seen as what ordinary Kiwis do.
It would be great to see more New Zealanders believing that the arts, like sport, DIY and L & P, are an intrinsic part of our DNA. Author Philip Pullman expressed it perfectly when he said :
Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play.
We all need to do our bit in breaking down people’s pre-conceptions about what goes on inside these walls. ‘This Is New Zealand’ may very well help with that.
Congratulations to City Gallery on your re-opening and the new exhibition. I wish you every success.
Kia ora huihui tātou katoa