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For Time Immemorial

Riff Raff, Trust Us, 2017. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery.
Riff Raff, Trust Us, 2017. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery.
Riff Raff, Trust Us, 2017. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery.
Riff Raff, Trust Us, 2017. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery.
Neil Pardington, Pacific Store #1 (Samoan Clubs), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2006 C-print photograph, framed, 1054 x 1245mm. Image courtesy of the City Art Collection.
Mark Amery on artists and what they do with 'all that stuff'.


Arguably the heaviest (and ever increasing) load for an artist and their family are objects: what to do with all this stuff? Not selling art is one thing, having to store it for time immemorial another. 

It’s desirable for it to be shared with as many people as possible. To be feted and enjoyed. Treasured. But do you trust your governors as well as your neighbours to safeguard your interests after you’ve past?

In Mexico many artists can pay their income tax with their artwork. Yes. Let that sink in. In a scheme created in 1958 - the era that sealed the importance of art to Mexico’s sense of cultural identity - if a painter, sculptor or graphic artist sells up to five artworks in a year they donate one to the federal government. If they sell between six and eight they donate two. And so on. If the work is of a high calibre it becomes part of the national collection. The rest is sent out to fill the country’s museums and administrative buildings. Some form exhibitions sent around the world. In recent years, the government has been forced to purchase additional warehouses in Mexico City to store all this.

Back home, artists have until midnight 17 February to donate their work to the Trust Us Contemporary Art Trust’s “stupendously diverse” national art collection. Run by Riff Raff at Enjoy Gallery Wellington - Li-Ming Hu and Daphne Simons on a joyous summer residency - it’s an extremely smart, ridiculously fun project challenging our own boundaries of what we deem good art, and who we can trust. Anyone can donate their art. There are collection points in Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. 

Anything Riff Raff say can be art - it’s up to the artist to deem it so - as long as it’s been made in the last five years long and fits within the bounds of a regular-sized paddling pool (flawed, they’ve adjusted the paddling pool criteria to a specific size request). 

At the end of an exhibition lasting until 4 March this “non-legal entity” will offer the collection in its entirety to the Chartwell Trust, which has arguably the finest private contemporary art collection in the land. If the trust doesn’t take it Trust Us will take care of its maintenance and storage. 

But who can you trust? Does the fact that Trust Us isn’t actually a trust affect your judgement? What sort of care will they take, like forever? Perhaps the chance it might end up in the Chartwell Trust (a good mark on the CV) is an incentive that far outweighs any concerns over what and where these artists might put your work.  

And, after all isn’t trust what every artist has to have with their beloved work every time they sell it to someone? 

In an interview with the artists this week for Circuitcast one of the most interesting comments was that so far the organisers knew most of those who’d donated. You’d think the Chartwell carrot would have already sent a deluge of art into the gallery. All those artists so long denied the chance to show at Auckland Art Gallery! 

At the time of writing we don’t know if there’s been a huge rush of entries - denying room at wee Enjoy for an audience for Friday’s 12-hour live-streamed telethon, calling for art donations. But you sense that the lesson here is that, even when there’s a big reward we trust those who are part of our wider social circle. 

In my last column I asked whether people believe in public art collections anymore. I was talking about the public (most artists like to be collected and shown). But I don’t think collection by their regional museum is as significant as it was for artists. Their eyes are cast wider. More across their own global, social sect. 

Twenty years ago that wasn’t so clear. 27 years ago Wellington City Council got serious about contemporary art on the back of many local artists and their more powerful supporters kicking up a fuss about local representation. About the same time council funded City Gallery opened its Hirschfield Gallery dedicated to Wellington artists, and then in 2009 with the gallery’s extension it was announced that the central Hancock Gallery would be a site for the exhibition of the city art collection (the work the ratepayers own).

While the Hirschfeld no longer exclusively shows Wellington work, the Hancock has rarely shown the civic collection. Instead this very fine collection of contemporary work may be enjoyed in the council’s meeting rooms on its ground floor. 

Over this time we’ve seen strong growth of galleries elsewhere - the Adam Art Gallery (which has one of its regular Victoria University collection shows opening Friday 18 February), Pataka in Porirua to name a few.    

In 2005 city council opened its own gallery dedicated to the work of Wellington artists at the arts centre Toi Poneke. It manages well to have an open submission process yet select a diverse and strong programme of emerging Wellington made work. 

The current exhibition, Take that which has passed (up until February 23), curated by Enjoy’s Louise Rutledge is quite a change. For the first time I can recall Toi Poneke has been given over to a show of the council’s collection. And rather boldly, it is not as you would expect an exhibition of the newer artists in the civic collection. Rather it is artists currently getting well exhibited elsewhere: Ann Shelton, who currently has a survey at Auckland Art Gallery, Walters Prize winner Shannon Te Ao (with a beautiful text based work that is quite different in format but not sensibility to his videos), Ruth Buchanan, Sonya Lacey, Neil Pardington and the late Julian Dashper. Two are not even from Wellington I believe, and three of the locals are on Enjoy’s board.  

You couldn’t have picked from the collection a more big public gallery loving group of artists. And the theme - “responses to the way knowledge is held, collected and communicated” - and dry, minimal installation are also directly on trend. Is that playing it safe, or shaking things up? A bit of both I think. They are important to the world curator Rutledge inhabits. She asserts the power of the exhibition as being more important than the politics of representation.  

The exhibition doesn’t quite earn its theme, but it’s an exquisite set of work that take some time to unpack.  Just the sort of work that deserves long periods of time on public walls. And isn’t that what all that great art deserves, and public institutional collecting gives it - time? 


Written by

Mark Amery

14 Feb 2017

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