Why Te Papa’s new CEO appointment is major news

Courtney Johnston chats with Te Papa host Roger Gascoigne. Photo: Te Papa Jack Foster
Auckland mayor Phil Goff with sword at the announcement of a new screen mentorship programme at FilmFX.
Annea Lockwood performing ‘Piano Garden’ back in the 196os. Credit: Chris Ware
In the final Lowdown of the decade, Mark Amery rounds up the juiciest arts stories from the past week, and brings us the best of those ubiquitous ‘best-of’ lists.

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New leadership

This week, Courtney Johnston takes over from Geraint Martin as Chief Executive of Te Papa, sharing the role with current Kaihautū (Māori co-leader) Dr Arapata Hakiwai. For an institution plagued with concerns over restructuring and staff morale (there have been three restructures under three chief executives in the last five years, drawing criticism from the museum sector), the appointment is significant for at least two reasons. 

Firstly, at age 40 she is Te Papa’s youngest CEO ever, and the first woman since founder Dame Cheryll Sotheran left in 2002. Really, you get tired of all those men in suits. 

Secondly, it’s an internal promotion. Johnston was a visitor host there while studying at university, and is currently Te Papa’s Director of Audience and Insight. The last two directors brought no such on the-floor direct experience, coming respectively from public healthcare policy (Geraint Martin) and media business (Rick Ellis). Johnston’s experience as a museum director and arts commentator is testament to her deep passion for museums and public engagement, and for Te Papa itself. A regular arts commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon, Johnston talked to Kathryn Ryan about her plans and the major current issues.

Making good on promises

There’s been no news on the Government’s promised reinstatement of a pathways to employment programme (outside a 'Fairer wage for artists and arts practitioners initiative' cash injection to CNZ), but then this small scheme got announced at Henderson special effects studio FilmFX on Saturday. The Government will fund 20 paid internships for beneficiaries to work in Auckland's screen sector, with the Ministry of Social Development partnering with Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development to create the jobs in the Auckland film and production industry. This raises the question: might a wider programme across the creative industries be on the cards care of the MSD? What about embedding artists in all kinds of workplaces?

Meanwhile at the Ministry of Education, applications have closed for the first round of the Creatives in Schools programme. Of the 157 schools and 232 creatives who applied (their anonymous briefs are here), 24 have been successful. These have yet to be announced. Applications for round two close in April.

Also, late last week Creative New Zealand announced findings from their recent Capability Building review. As a result of the recommendations there will be changes to the programme from 2021, and new appointments of Janine Morrell-Gunn, Riria Hotere-Barnes and John Ong to their board. Roger King has been appointed for a further term. 

It hasn’t been an easy end to the year for CNZ, with the arts industry responding negatively to news of organisations who haven’t been funded in recent rounds. That’s something you can gauge in the title of an end of year message from Arts Council Chair Michael Moynahan, ‘The realities of contestable arts funding’. Straight off the bat Moynahan calls this a “significant period of transition.”

Awarding great work

Hera Lindsay Bird and Michalia Arathimos have each been awarded four-month Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowships in 2020. The paid writer’s residency takes place in the Frank Sargeson Centre, in a prime perch overlooking Auckland’s Albert Park. Hera told RNZ’s Lynn Freeman that she will be working on a series of linked short stories, while Greek-New Zealander Michalia Arathimos (author of the novel Aukati) will be working on a collection of short stories. 

Pioneering Kiwi experimental electronic music composer, Annea Lockwood—who began in the ‘60s collaborating with sound poets, choreographers and visual artists and began teaching in the States in the ‘70s—is to be honoured with the 2020 SEAMUS Award by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States in March. Awarded annually since 1987, the award’s previous recipients include Laurie Anderson,  Robert Moog and Les Paul.

Lockwood turned 80 this year and, as the New York Times writes, recently had a concert held in her honoured at Columbia University. The Times article documents her obsession as an artist with rivers—she was inspired by the rivers of Canterbury growing up—and includes images of her celebrated late ‘60s series that involved burning, drowning and planting pianos. Here’s a recreation in 2016 of one of her piano burning pieces on Vimeo, as well as a great interview with Lockwood. Known for work that influenced ecofeminism, it’s timely for Lockwood to gain wider recognition in New Zealand. 


Annea Lockwood performing  ‘Piano Garden’ back in the 1960s. Credit: Chris Ware

Some great artists interviews can be found at Artzone. Here’s a conversation with the marvellous Professor Huhana Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe and Ngati Raukawa ki te Tonga), head of Whiti o Rehua School of Art at Massey University. She’s an artist with a focus on bringing together kaupapa Māori and science to address climate change issues.

Regional Buildings

An arts story worth following this year has been around the problem with introducing museum admission charges in NZ. Here’s an update on the beat-up around the Govett-Brewster’s entry charge. The Taranaki gallery set their visitor target numbers ahead of the introduction to a charge, which has seen numbers drop a little. At the same time, an in-house survey shows visitor satisfaction numbers have risen. Here are art collectors and writers Jim and Mary Barr on the Government’s current collection show, which celebrates the gallery’s upcoming 50th.

Meanwhile in Timaru, the new council is trying to get its head around culture and heritage priorities with a planned new museum and heritage centre, a library and theatre upgrade, and delayed repairs to the treasured Aigantighe Art Gallery's historic House Gallery. 

Further south in Dunedin, there’s plenty of heat around the council’s plans to temporarily close the CBD’s Octagon to vehicles early in the new year. Always a creative space, in November it was used by protestors who staged a performance pretending to drill for oil and gas. As debate about the future of the Octagon heats up, writes the Otago Daily Times, Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s curatorial intern Milly Mitchell-Anyon has created a summer exhibition on the Octagon’s history.


Fourth Wall Theatre winners in the Arts on Tour Regional Arts Touring Awards for 2019.

Arts on Tour do remarkable work in taking artists out to small regional venues (this year their work was the subject of a documentary Central to the Soul). So here’s a nice Christmas tradition: each year, the New Zealand actors and musicians who tour the country with them make nominations to create the ‘Regional Arts Touring Awards’.  Best overall venue and top gig went to 4th Wall Theatre in New Plymouth (pictured), the Manaakitanga (Hospitality) Award went to Daisy Sawyers in Reefton, Best Theatre Venue to Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt, Best Music Venue to The Laboratory in Lincoln and the Best Individual Community Presenter was awarded to Heather McPherson of Bannockburn.

Best of the 'best-of' lists

Finally, in our last Lowdown of the year, here are some roundups of the best in New Zealand arts and culture from both the year and the decade.

In music lists, Under the Radar  has arduously whittled their favourite NZ tracks of the year down to 67, while the RNZ Songcrushers have been issuing some great best-of lists and Graham Reid over on Elsewhere has a whole pile of readers’ best-ofs.    

Over on The Spinoff, Megan Dunn and I put together a list of ten artworks for the last ten years, while The Pantograph Punch have published their top Ten Moments in Aotearoa Visual Art for 2019The Spinoff Review of Books have put out lists of best books for 2019, as has the NZ Listener.

Over at Metro Magazine, their best-of lists include a round-up of Auckland’s greatest cultural venues. 

And it’s not a best-of list, but what good news that Christchurch’s sparkling fringe venue, Little Andromeda, now has a home. Here’s a great piece by Kate Prior with Michael Bell on The Pantograph Punch. Also from Christchurch, check out this Theatrescenes review of the recent Ōtautahi Tiny Performance Festival at Christchurch Art Gallery,

Finally, this Sunday on RNZ from 12.30-4pm I will be hosting a Standing Room Only best-of-the-year special, with a plethora of special guests talking about the year that was and a special Laugh Track appearance from Santa Claus himself. The panels will be online just in time for Christmas here.

Written by

Mark Amery

18 Dec 2019

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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