Opening Reception for 'Engaging Practices - the Forum for Artists and Museums'

  • Simon Upton
State Services

Auckland Art Gallery

It is a pleasure be here tonight on the eve of what I am sure will be a very stimulating Museum Director's Federation forum. The speakers look to be an eclectic and exciting mix. It's heartening that the organisers have attracted such a dynamic group of contributors.

This event has come about through the hard work of John Leuthart and the board of the Museum Directors' Federation, in close and fruitful partnership with Creative New Zealand. The organisers seem to have been particularly adept at drawing together assistance. They have enlisted the support of the British Council 1997 Link programme, the Australian High Commission, the Austrian Consulate-General and the Goethe Institut. They have also arranged a fine collection of hosts: Auckland Art Gallery tonight, the Maritime Museum, Awataha Marae and the Auckland Museum to wrap things up.

It is appropriate that we have a vigorous forum now, for next year will be a monumental one for museums in New Zealand. In 1991, against all odds, the National Government, agreed to make its largest ever investment in the cultural sector and the results are at hand.

In February Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, will open, I trust, in a blaze of glory. It will considerably enhance this country's image on the cultural map. For New Zealanders museums will be in the limelight for a while. Wellington will prosper, but I'm equally sure attention will focus on the rich collections of other museums throughout the country and, indeed, the cultural sector at large.

The ideas, discussion and stimulation which I'm sure this forum will generate will contribute to the developing sophistication of the sector. We are grateful for such an injection. Ours is a small country and innovative gatherings such as this can have a significant effect. New Zealand is small and it is not super-rich. The range of patrons is limited; indeed if a couple of individuals made some bad investments and went bust we'd be in trouble.

Central and local government have become established by historical precedent as the most generous patrons of our cultural institutions. But resources are limited and there is fierce competition for every public dollar. So you have to be smart. Running a museum in New Zealand is no place for the smug or lazy. If a top regional museum loses concentration or focus for a year or two it can lose considerable ground to the next place down the highway.

I am new to the Cultural Affairs portfolio. I've spent the last six years in health and science, getting my mind around climate change, a raft of environment matters and most recently in the new portfolio of 'biosecurity'. I don't claim to be an expert on museums, let alone the focus of Engaging Practises - the interaction between artists and museums. But I have to say something.

It seems to me that there is an irreducible core of functions that public museums must perform. Museums hold collections in trust for the community, and in the case of the national institutions, for the nation. Their protection is, if you like, part of a 1000 year programme. It has to be carried out. It is a public good. Collections are the prime resource for museums as they move into the future. They form the basis of research, exhibitions and public programmes. And there is a minimum research capability that an institution must have if it wants to maintain its credibility.

Ongoing operational and programming cost are, therefore, most crucial for museums if they are to meet their irreducible functions. Where the nation's treasures are involved those running costs must be defended first and foremost.

Protecting the nation's treasures, maintaining scholarship, acquisitions and such functions are not necessarily 'sexy'. It's not so easy to attract sponsorship for safe storage and conservation laboratories. For elected representatives, collection preservation is not an achievement so obvious as an architectural monument or an exhibition that attracts unheard of numbers through the turnpike.

There's the rub. Institutions have to attract people to survive, to justify - to some - their continued support. They need to be successful because they're up against pools and sports stadiums.

The link between the function to preserve and the need to attract people is the other core function of museums - to produce knowledge. It is in the active engagement with their collections, through exhibitions, programmes and publications, that museums communicate with their audiences. It's not sufficient merely for museums to be keepers of objects. The best museums become lively spaces, where the visitor is engaged. They are intriguing places. They invite curiosity at their specialised areas of knowledge and wonder at their treasures.

It's important to remember that every encounter with a museum's holdings is a contemporary encounter. Even the most scientifically and culturally remote artefact or collection is a means to interpreting our present circumstances - how we come to be located where we are today - physically, socially and culturally - and how we seek to define and imagine ourselves.

Museums are a space brimming with potential for inventive artists who will communicate innovatively as I'm sure this forum will show. They have an important role, looking for new ways to present artefacts and ideas. Looking for new ways to interpret and critically examine them so they can be appreciated and understood. In a maturing society there will be room also for provocative artists who will challenge our expectations and assumptions of what is appropriate in a museum setting. Museums are a forum for debate, not for replacing old 'final words' with new orthodoxy, but where ideas jostle one against the other.

This forum, I'm sure, will be a cultural banquet. The speakers are a cast of accomplished artists, architects, designers, film makers, museum curators, consultants, iconoclasts - and the audience will be up to the task.