Dunedin Public Art Gallery

After a lovely week in Wellington visiting one half of the family, I headed to the South Island to visit the other half in Dunedin. I haven’t lived in this part of New Zealand, but know it pretty well from visiting over the years. The city’s layout was designed in Britain in the 19th century and based on Edinburgh, so the street names are familiar – George, Hanover, Frederick, Castle – but they were slapped down without much regard for the existing terrain. As a result, you’ll find here some of the steepest streets in the world. In Dunedin, the road doesn’t just rising up to meet your feet, but your nose too. The advantage of all this uppage is plenty of fabulous views over the harbour and surrounding hills. It’s a bustling university town and has long held a strong reputation for its music scene. And, like all New Zealand cities now, it is also home to fantastic coffee.

There are a range of cultural offers available in Dunedin, including the Dunedin Chinese Garden, Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum, and the Otago Museum (Dunedin is the main city in the Otago provincial district). In my limited time here, I focussed on Dunedin Public Art Gallery and met with Lynda Cullen, Visitor Programmes Coordinator, and Robyn Notman, Public Programmes and Collections Manager (who will soon be leaving the gallery for a role at the Hocken Collection). Lynda generously talked me through their programmes and gave me a tour of their learning spaces, including a practical making space, an auditorium, and a welcoming ‘Playspace’ gallery for families, located opposite the main entrance. But before I talk about the programme, I want to give a bit more context about the gallery and its history.

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Playspace, located on the ground floor of the gallery, facing the main entrance.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG), founded in 1884, is the oldest gallery in New Zealand. By European standards this will sound relatively recent, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the founding document of New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi, was only signed a few decades earlier in 1840, and the city of Dunedin itself only dates back to 1848. When the gallery was founded, the population of Dunedin was a mere 24,000, so this was a major undertaking. The gallery grew out of the Otago Art Society, established in 1875, and it’s ambition, right from the outset, was to collect both European and New Zealand masterpieces.

Today, the collection holds about 8,000 objects across a range of disciplines, including painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, new media and design (ceramics, glass, furniture, textiles and costume). In the 1930s, The UK’s National Art Collection Fund (NACF, now known as The Art Fund) – set up to secure national art treasures for public collections – acquired artworks for galleries in the Dominion (ie. part of the British Commonwealth). Consequently, there are some amazing works by British artists in the DPAG collection, including: Professor William Richardson (c.1780s) by Henry Raeburn; Spes [Hope] (1871) by Edward Burne-Jones; and First Portrait of Mrs Betty Joel (1928), by Jacob Epstein. The gallery also showcases work by New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, and holds an impressive collection of Japanese prints and netsuke, as well as European paintings and prints from the 14th century onwards.

The gallery has been at The Octagon, in the heart of the city centre, since 1996. The building was previously a department store; I don’t know how many of its original features remain, but the entrance is spectacular – a large, light-filled atrium gives a sense of the scale of building, and the surrounding mezzanine and balcony levels offer a range of viewpoints to enjoy the central spaces. The atrium also has a huge installation area, known as the ‘Big Wall’ for good reason. When I visited, the installation on display was by artist Tiffany Singh. The work is a screen of pastel-coloured ribbons, falling the full length of the wall; on each ribbon is written the Buddhist mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ (the title of the work) in gold lettering that shimmers as you walk past it. There can’t be many gallery walls in the country that are large enough to hold such a striking piece and the effect is stunning. Should you find yourself at the gallery on Sunday 2 April, you’ll be able to join a Buddhist Meditation class, programmed to complement Singh’s installation.

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Tiffany Singh’s installation, Om Mani Padme Hum, on the ‘Big Wall’.

Lynda’s public programmes are as varied and rich as the collections and exhibitions themselves. Her colleague, John Neumegen, is the LEOTC (Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom) artist educator who delivers all of the primary and secondary school tours and workshops. Judging by the immaculate arrangement of his materials and resources in the practical making workshop, he runs a pretty tight ship. Lynda does some work with formal education groups, giving tours to tertiary students and early years classes (as LEOTC doesn’t include funding for these audiences), and is otherwise responsible for the rest of the learning programme.

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The art studio, ready for a school workshop.

Lynda is well-networked and thinks laterally about her offer, which makes for fantastic interdisciplinary programming. I was surprised to discover how many city-wide festivals Dunedin has throughout the year – for example, Wild Dunedin (festival of nature), the Fringe Festival (performing arts), and iD Dunedin Fashion Week, to name a few – Lynda works with all of them, and hosts all sorts of related events at the gallery:

  • for Wild Dunedin in April, she has programmed an aviary curator from the Botanic Gardens and a gallery guide to co-deliver a tour of the collections, focussing on art and the environment;
  • for the Fringe Festival in March, the gallery is having an eclectic range of performances, including throat singing, jazz, Indian dance, and the creation of a ‘pulsing sonic soundscape designed for thinking and dancing’; and
  • an upcoming DPAG exhibition, When Dreams Turn to Gold: The Benson and Hedges and Smokefree Fashion Design Awards 1964-1998, is timed to correspond with Fashion Week, and related programming includes, ‘Be a Fashion Designer’ drop-in workshops for families, ‘In Conversations’ with designers, and fashion-related film screenings.

The University of Otago and Dunedin Teachers’ College run fellowship and residency schemes, offering further opportunities for collaboration and public programming with the gallery.  The Teachers’ College supports writers-in-residence and the University awards six-month Fellowships for several disciplines, including writing (Burns Fellowship), art (Frances Hodgkins Fellowship), music (Mozart Fellowship), and community dance (Caroline Plummer Fellowship). Lynda creates networking opportunities for the fellows and residents to get together, as well as public programming opportunities for them to share their work with a broader audience. For example, Caroline Sutton Clark is the current Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellow, and she will be running a Butoh dance workshop and then performing solo as part of the International Day of Dance in April. Lynda did her MA in Visual Culture and Gender at the University of Otago, and has sustained great links with the local academic community. Where possible, she programmes talks and events that respond to new thinking and trends coming out of the world of academia and research.

I have highlighted examples from Lynda’s programme that champion partnership working and interdisciplinary practice, which are both areas of particular interest to me. However, I don’t want to give the impression that her programme only runs in parallel to, and doesn’t intersect with, the collections and exhibitions. She offers a huge range of inspiring talks and workshops by guest curators and exhibiting artists, directly engaging with the artworks. The variety of the DPAG public programme is what makes it so interesting, and it’s even more impressive when you consider it is the work of a one-woman learning department!

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