This week, MTG staff were treated to a talk by Roy Dunningham on the development of our art collection over the decades. As a long-time museum supporter, retired art teacher, and ex-member of the acquisition committee, Roy gave brilliant insight into how we came to hold a wide range of artworks on behalf of all Hawke’s Bay people.
We learned how during the 1970s, many works were bought to support the local arts community, while others from further afield were chosen for their picturesque charm. Roy contended that while these are (by and large) lovely pieces of art, in hindsight many were clearly not suitable choices for a regional museum collection.
Instead the focus should be on artworks with the most enduring cultural value: those that are compelling expressions of the time, place and social context in which they were made.
An example of this is ‘Erotic Couch’ by Philip Clairmont, painted in the 1970s, a time defined by sexual revolution and political protest. Clairmont and fellow creatives were living in rundown flats with furniture that was, as Roy put it, more like ‘twentiethhand’ than secondhand. He recalled the exhilarating dynamism of those flats, where people congregated to debate art, poetry, politics and more.
On a rough piece of hessian, Clairmont’s painting encapsulates all this with a couch that seems dangerously alive, writhing with curves and zigzags, acidic colours and what could be teeth brushing the floor. It’s hungry, just as that generation was at that time.
I wholeheartedly agree with Roy that these are the kinds of works that MTG should focus on – and not just for our collection, but for our exhibition programme too. We provide a platform for social dialogue, and the kind of contemporary art I find most exciting is that which jumps right in to the debate of widely relevant themes.
Our current show by Yuki Kihara exemplifies this, as it takes a critical look at the forces of colonialism and globalised capitalism, which together have shaped our realities today. We are also developing upcoming projects with artists that will continue to add to current discourse: one responding to the challenge of plastic proliferation in our oceans, and another inspired by effective solutions that are leading the way in countering crises in housing as well as soil and waterway degradation.
These come at a time when the crew of the waka Te Matau a Māui is carrying out New Zealand’s first ocean plastic trawl, sailing between here and the Chatham Islands to collect data on microplastics. When Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga is gearing up to build hundreds of houses to form New Zealand’s first indigenous co-housing development, which will see many whānau shift from precarious housing into a stable home ownership situation. And when Ngāti Kahungunu Inc are partnering with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to launch the Kahutia Accord, to cloak the region in hundreds of millions of trees.
It’s another dynamic juncture, and as always, the arts have an integral part to play.
‘Erotic Couch’ by Philip Clairmont, painted in 1977
Jess Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay
Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today, 24th February 2018