Who Got the Gig? Karl Chitham
The Dowse Art Museum, located in Lower Hutt, strives to convey the transformative powers of art, and its ability to bring together communities — qualities that their new director Karl Chitham is passionate about. He brings a wealth of experience to The Dowse: from his last role as director and curator of Tauranga Art Gallery to his years as a high school teacher in Auckland.
Karl says that one of the most exciting things about being a director is having the opportunity to make positive changes and shape a new vision for the institution you’re working for. “With Tauranga Art Gallery, there was a lot of interest in the gallery being more visible within the local community, generating collaborative projects and increasing partnerships. So that was my task — to find ways to make that happen.”
As director, Karl has also been able to provide a voice for Māori in areas where historically those voices may have been absent. “I’m proud to have created platforms for Māori content and have opened up conversations about contemporary Māori practice and representation within the art galleries I have worked in.” This is an area of focus he is still devoted to, speaking enthusiastically about an upcoming exhibition at The Dowse which focuses on contemporary Māori moving image art, which will be co-curated by Bridget Reweti and Melanie Oliver.
Over the next few months Karl will be investigating the strengths of The Dowse and coming up with a plan to accentuate its many assets. “To do this I need to learn more about the local and regional communities. I was actually born in Lower Hutt, but I have never lived here; I’ve only ever been a visitor. It's a really different experience when you work and live in a place. That's going to be part of what I will do in the next 3 to 6 months — I’ll get a better feeling for Lower Hutt and the communities here, as well as those in the wider Wellington region.”
Karl has been appointed Director of Museums for Hutt City Council, which means that as well as being the director of the Dowse Art Museum, he is also director for the Petone Settlers Museum and the Little Theatre. Within the Hutt City Council, there is a strong focus on community engagement: “We’ve got these community hubs which sit out in areas like Taita, and Wainuiomata in Stokes Valley. Part of my role is seeing how we can actively engage people in those areas as well.”
Having an education in the arts has been invaluable for Karl throughout his varied and successful career. He completed an undergraduate degree in visual arts at Manukau Institute of Technology, focusing on contemporary jewellery, before moving on to Elam School of Fine Arts to complete a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. “It was really different going from Manukau, which had a close-knit atmosphere that was really supportive and nurturing towards its students, to Elam which has much more of an industry focus in terms of the art world. That was quite a shift for me.”
While studying at Elam was a different experience from what he had anticipated, it was still an incredibly worthwhile one for Karl. “I feel like I was part of a really good cohort of people and studied during a really energetic time in New Zealand art. This has really helped me in my career as a curator and director because those people have become my networks.”
In a society often preoccupied with fitting in, it can be hard to have the courage to be different. Karl imparts some important advice for those wanting to succeed in the arts: “I have learnt over the years that being yourself and doing a really great job of doing that is much better than being like everybody else. It’s a really competitive industry and you need to stand out from the crowd if you want to have a chance at success. You have to be working really hard and be doing exceptional work. Ultimately it’s your work that stands the test of time.”