Wellingtonians can look forward to some wonderful displays of art in 2018 with the imminent redesign and renovation of exhibition spaces in both Te Papa and City Gallery. When it opens in March 2018, Toi Art, the new gallery at Te Papa, will increase the amount of space dedicated to art by 35%. A further cause of celebration is Te Papa's publishing arm, which not only produces a highly respected research journal in Tuhinga, but also consistently publishes excellent book-length studies of its own extensive collections. Their latest offering is Ten x Ten: One Hundred of the Best-Loved Works in the National Art Collection at Te Papa, an idiosyncratic selection by ten art curators, each of whom have chosen ten of their favourite works. Handsomely illustrated, their choices are accompanied by full-page colour prints and brief descriptions of the work, explaining in straightforward and approachable language why it is of historical, cultural, or personal significance.
Such an approach is highly commendable, since it allows for a wide-ranging and eclectic appreciation of the breadth of Te Papa's art collection, only a fraction of which is available for display in the past. The argument has frequently been made, often justifiably, that Te Papa's remit is hopelessly comprehensive and that separating the art collection from the historical, scientific, and technical objects of interest would have done much better justice to them all. Be that as it may, an adventurous publication like Ten x Ten goes a long way towards redressing the balance by enabling the casual visitor to get a much wider impression of the kind of works on which the tax-payer's dollars are being spent. While Te Papa may not possess the kind of resources that would allow it to amass a collection of classical masterpieces, it is reassuring to know that it does have a staff of exceptionally talented curators who possess sufficient expertise in their various fields to make well-informed and judicious purchases on behalf of the nation.
Ten x Ten not only invites ten of the institution’s curators to pick ten of their favourite works from the national collection, but also to explain why they find the works interesting, resonant, or significant. The result is a novel behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s national art collection by those who know these paintings, prints, photographs, applied art objects and sculptures better than most. The curators include: Charlotte Davy – Head of Art; Mark Stocker – Historical International Art; Rebecca Rice – Historical New Zealand Art; Lissa Mitchell – Historical Photography; Chelsea Nichols – Modern Art; Justine Olsen – Decorative Art & Design; Megan Tamati-Quennell – Modern & Contemporary Maori & Indigenous Art; Athol McCredie – Photography; Nina Tonga – Pacific Art; and Sarah Farrar – Contemporary Art
Striking images of the curators were photographed for the book in the museum’s art store by portrait photographer Jane Ussher. Their commentaries are accompanied by reproductions of the works, roughly sequenced by the period of history covered by their portfolio. Full biographical details on each artist, from the instantly recognisable to the lesser known, are included, making it an excellent resource for art history students. Balancing New Zealand and international art, the selection covers a vast time period, from a circa 1300 BC finger ring gifted to the Dominion Museum by the Egypt Exploration Society, through to one of the central works from Simon Denny’s 2015 Venice Biennale project.
Ten x Ten is edited by Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography at Te Papa, where he has worked since 2001. Prior to that he was curator and acting director at Manawatu Art Gallery and he has been involved with photography as an author, researcher, curator, and photographer since the 1970s. His most recent book, New Zealand Photography Collected was shortlisted for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He suggests the texts are generally more informal and personal than is conventional in collection books - “We hope to make art appreciation less of a mystery and to allow viewers to connect with work by seeing it through the eyes of curators, handing them the confidence to reflect on their own responses in turn.”
McCredie also hopes that Ten x Ten, along with new forms of digital access, will complement the expansion of exhibition space, offering increased ways of showcasing and engaging with Te Papa’s collections - “The thrust of the renewal is not only to show more of the collections but also to make art accessible to as broad a spectrum of the public as possible,” he says. “This book works in parallel, aiming to draw back the intimidating screen of anonymous authority that tends to surround museum exhibitions and publications.”
Ten x Ten has been longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. It is published by Te Papa Press, and available in good bookstores now ($45.00).