Opening the new Manawatu Art Gallery

NICHOLAS SPILL

Community involvement has been a key factor in making the new Manawatu Art Gallery materialise from its final blueprint in 1973. An extremely active fund raising committee called COMPRO '75 managed to raise almost a third of the projected funds for the gallery building. People contributed because they knew the gallery would not be another city monument to an elitist arts society. Luit Bieringa has deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art.

David Taylor, the architect, also had a close working relationship with the staff and the contractors. Every tiny detail was personally seen to, making the gallery as versatile and as open to as many different cultural uses as possible. On the Wednesday before the opening, David rushed into the gallery to measure Esme Robinson's knees just to make sure the secretary would have a desk that fitted her perfectly. It was symbolic of David Taylor's continual obsession with making everything in the design of the interior just right. The interior doors were sprayed with 5-6 coats of bright red auto-lacquer giving a brilliant and deep colour. All wiring in the gallery goes behind the skirting boards. The skirting boards are secured by a specially designed brass fitting that can be easily removed. Dozens of design details such as these makes the gallery space a dream to work in.

But how can three people (the Director, Margaret Taylor the Exhibitions Officer, and Esme Robinson) handle the gallery in months to come? The gallery has a display space similar in area to the Auckland City Art Gallery, which has a staff of over twenty.

Staircase detail, with painting by Ian Scott

Palmerston North's City Council will have to face the fact that their gallery's budget will have to be doubled, initially at least, to cope with extra staff and all the necessary work needed in maintaining such a vital cultural service to the Manawatu.

Luit Bieringa, after his Arts Council assisted European study tour in 1975-6, has set the way for an active, community based gallery that will meet the needs and offer more besides for the people of the Manawatu. This is an important direction for a gallery to take. A director could take the attitude that only the very best art of a certain category should be shown. This would cater for a minority of the local population and create an elitist attitude towards art as a very refined commodity only the well read can appreciate and consume at their leisure.

Luit Bieringa's approach is different. A Show of Hands was a totally democratic interpretation on the theme of hands.

Entering the first gallery space there was a display of weaving and large photo panels, featuring potters at work. In the floor area a loom and two potter wheels plus tables of clay stood to be used in demonstrations. The gallery opposite was enclosed in a darkened space set up for a TOUCH exhibition. Participants were blindfolded on entry and felt their way along a predetermined path of specially laid carpet. They slowly handled and touched a diverse range of functional, decorative and art objects. The largest gallery space displayed contemporary New Zealand painters who had different approaches to their art: Toss Woollaston, Ray Thorburn, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht, Brent Wong, Pat Hanly and Philip Trusttum. Clean white spacious walls and a versatile lighting system meant these paintings looked superb, proving how necessary properly designed spaces are to show such works to advantage.

Looking out from the public lounge, with 'play hand' and Don Driver's Cosmos Series (photograph Trevor Ulyatt)

The central gallery downstairs revealed a bizarre array of hands: skeleton and X-ray hands, wax hands, photographs and other visual material related to hand imagery. An interlocking panel system meant this space could be sensitively broken up into different areas; the carpet and low ceiling gave this space an intimacy conducive to prolonged browsing.

Up in the mezzanine gallery the more vanguard art was shown: a Bruce Barber video tape Hand Game for Artists, Politicians and Solipsists, plus photo pieces, mail art and other contemporary works. In the lecture/film room, Brian McNeill's specially commissioned synchronised tape and slide presentation was shown to curious and aghast audiences. No doubt the title Hand Erotic Moves Divine lured many people to see a technically superb work. Films related to hands also screened, making the entire Show of Hands an exhausting journey through many different approaches and attitudes to art.

A few facts and figures. . . . The gallery has a total floor area of 18,000 square feet. There is a climate control system that is able to regulate temperature and humidity. All five gallery spaces have only artificial lighting, though four large vertical windows allow natural lighting into the building giving an open and spacious feeling. There is a fluorescent lighting system with minimum ultra violet light together with a light tracking system able to carry spots and floods. Both lighting systems have sectional controls allowing dimming where necessary.

Behind the scenes there is a drive-in docking yard, sufficient at least for the present. Studios, offices, lounges, a lecture/film room and a proposed book shop make up the other facilities. Films, concerts, workshops, lectures, seminars, practically anything can take place in these spaces.

The incredible fact is that the cost of such a gallery was well below half a million dollars! The funding of the gallery building was spilt three ways: $230,000 from local government, $100,000 from national government, and the rest ($100,000) from fund raising in the Manawatu.

At the official opening ceremony on Sunday, 3 July, where politicians stood up and took credit for everything they did not do, Brian Ellwood, the Mayor of Palmerston North, stated a very important principle - this gallery was able to be designed and operated so successfully because of his principle of non-interference. As a local body politician he let the art professionals get on with their job. Such a statement drew much applause from the audience, especially from those in the art world who were suffering, or have suffered, such harassing political interference. David Taylor justly received a rousing ovation as the architect who made the building happen, though he was shyly hiding in the crowd.

The product of Brian Ellwood's 'non-interference' policy in Palmerston North is the best designed gallery space in New Zealand; and an exhibitions and cultural programme that far outstrips the gallery's meagre budget in terms of imagination and scope.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 7 August/September/October 1977