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Creative Community Responds To Ara's Private Art Collection

Hidden in plain sight across Ara Institute of Canterbury’s campuses is a remarkable art collection of nearly 700 works. One of the earliest collections held by a tertiary institution, it features works by Shane Cotton, Ralph Hotere, Margaret Stoddard, and many other renowned artists. In a rare move, the collection has been curated for public viewing off campus.

But Curate Me, A Response to the Ara Artwork Collection is more than a conventional exhibit of an established collection. Alongside each original work are the artistic responses of members of Ara’s creative community, including graduates, staff, and students.

Exhibiting the works alongside each other provides an insight into the inspiration that the participants took from the collection and, according to Ara Art Curator Julie Humby, strengthens community awareness of the Ara Artwork Collection.

"The exhibit is about demonstrating how people bring their own personal experiences to art when they’re viewing it," says Humby. "The artistic responses show that there is no single response to artwork, and that everyone sees art through their own unique lens. This is especially obvious in the works where two people have responded creatively in such different ways."

An early work of Philip Trusttum’s, Christchurch Houses, features striking colours and thick, unblended lines of heavy paint. Humby says the painting "may have been inspired by a trip to Europe the previous year. It displays an expressive use of colour and Van Gogh-like handling of paint."

Responses to Trusttum’s painting are presented from an Ara alumna, Magdalene Clare, and the manager of Ara’s Art and Design department, Kathryn McCully. Clare’s work is representative of the lower socio-economic neighbourhood where she grew up. McCully, who had been house-hunting at the time, designed a vinyl sticker reminiscent of a ‘sold’ sticker on a house for sale sign.

"While both responses to Trusttum’s painting are very different from each other, it’s interesting that both deal with the financial side of housing and the inequities in today’s housing market," says Humby. This helps demonstrate, she suggests, that the perception of art is shaped by our current realities.

Cantabrian Janneth Gil visited the exhibit a few days after the opening. She was surprised by the extent of the collection and found herself really immersed in it. "I was interested in how the responses gave a new meaning to the collection and started transforming my own views of the works," she said.

A concertina-folded paper and ink work response piece, inspired by Wayne Youle’s Navigation, caught Gil’s attention. "I found myself looking at it from below and on top and from the side, really engaging with the piece to find its artistic meaning," Gil says of Debra McLeod’s piece.

Ara’s art collection was established in 1935 by McGregor Wright, Chair of the Christchurch Technical College Ara’s Board of Governors at the time, with the gift of 61 artworks by contemporary Canterbury artists including Rita Angus, Grace Butler, and Rata Lovell-Smith.

Over the years, the collection has grown to include traditional Māori art and pou (carved wooden pillars), sculptures, stained glass, carvings, and weavings. While it continues to focus on Canterbury artists, it has also acquired works by Pat Hanly, Shane Cotton, Robin White and a broad range of other artists to reflect contemporary and customary art in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Items from the collection have been reproduced in many books and journals and are regularly loaned to art galleries and museums throughout the country. The collection is an invaluable resource for teaching, learning and research, enriching the lives of those at Ara’s six campuses.

Curate Me, A Response to the Ara Artwork Collection is open to the public for free viewing at PG gallery 192 located at 192 Bealey Avenue, Christchurch until 15 October 2021. The exhibition is funded by the Ara Foundation.

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