Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, post-earthquakes 2011

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

Ten years have passed since the Christchurch Art Gallery was destroyed in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2011. Alina Suchanski writes about the history of this iconic Christchurch institution and its rise from post-earthquake havoc.

A huge crowd gathered on a warm, sunny day on 10 May 2003 to witness the opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū by then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The ultra-modern building with its spectacular glazed façade had sparked some controversy. Concerns were voiced about the intrusion of a contemporary building into the surrounding heritage precinct with its Victorian Gothic architecture and though the gallery opened to general public acclaim, some voices of dissent dubbed it “a warehouse in a

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

Ten years have passed since the Christchurch Art Gallery was destroyed in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2011. Alina Suchanski writes about the history of this iconic Christchurch institution and its rise from post-earthquake havoc.

A huge crowd gathered on a warm, sunny day on 10 May 2003 to witness the opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū by then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The ultra-modern building with its spectacular glazed façade had sparked some controversy. Concerns were voiced about the intrusion of a contemporary building into the surrounding heritage precinct with its Victorian Gothic architecture and though the gallery opened to general public acclaim, some voices of dissent dubbed it “a warehouse in a tutu”.

Although the Christchurch Art Gallery is just 18 years old, its roots and the art collection it houses reach back to the late 19th century when in 1880, the Canterbury Society of Arts was established as a group aiming to foster the amateur artistic activities of the city. Flourishing, and their permanent collection growing significantly over the following ten years, it had created storage problems for the Society.

In 1890, Christchurch’s first public art gallery was built on the corner of Armagh Street and Cambridge Terrace. Known as the Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery, it housed a collection in which British works greatly outnumbered New Zealand art. The collection continued to expand and within 35 years again outgrew its premises. By 1925, it became apparent that a new gallery was needed.

The shortage of space was exacerbated when the Society received a bequest from art collector James Jamieson (1842-1927). Christchurch building contractor Jamieson had a keen interest in art and during his lifetime amassed a large collection of paintings, miniatures, drawings, prints, rare china, and furniture, which he housed in a private gallery at his Hereford Street home. After his death, Jamieson’s family respected his wish to bequeath his entire collection to the city of Christchurch.

The Canterbury Society of Arts was unable to receive the bequest until a new gallery was built, but could not raise appropriate funding till 1932, when a Christchurch businessman and philanthropist, Robert E. McDougall, donated £26,000 towards a new art gallery to be built in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It was to be named after its benefactor as the Robert McDougall Art Gallery.

The new gallery focused on works from the Canterbury Society of Arts and those of the Jamieson bequest. The collection continued to expand slowly through gifts, bequests, and purchases.

After WWII, with the help of a collecting fund established by the Christchurch City Council in 1949, the gallery introduced a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions of international artists. It wasn’t until twenty years later that it started exhibiting works by New Zealand artists and developing national touring shows.

In 1988, the Contemporary Art Annex was established in the Arts Centre (former Canterbury College library) to present work by emerging contemporary artists, particularly those in Canterbury.

As the McDougall Art Gallery collection continued to grow, it became clear that the old building in Hagley Park was no longer adequate. Pressure mounted again to move its burgeoning collection to new purpose-built premises. In 1995, Christchurch City Council committed $5 million towards acquiring a site for a new gallery, and a year later, purchased the vacant site between Montreal Street and Worcester Boulevard. A competition to design the new gallery was launched. The winning design was by the Buchan Group, an international architectural firm operating in Australia, New Zealand, and China.

It took five years to complete the design and construction of the gallery and to relocate its collection from its old site, the MacDougal Gallery in Hagley Park. At the opening ceremony on 10 May 2003, the name of the new gallery was announced to the public as the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Literally speaking, the Māori name, Te Puna o Waiwhetū, can be translated as a spring (or source) of starry water. It relates to the life-giving properties of the artesian spring on which the gallery is built and to its role in contributing to the cultural wellbeing of the community (Christchurch Art Gallery, History, 2021).

It also reflects a transition in the gallery’s overall direction from heritage keeper to heritage maker. In the words of the current gallery director, Blair Jackson: “Our focus is on investing in the creation of new work, from its inception through to its potential acquisition, and representing the Gallery’s programme in a new integrated way that reflects Christchurch now.” The gallery has become a source from which new art flows into the community, promoting new stars in the world of art.

The building houses nine exhibition areas, a reference library, auditorium, education workrooms, restaurant, shops, and extensive collection storage. As you walk through the giant glass doors, you enter an open, spacious foyer filled with light. The information desk in the middle of the foyer is dwarfed by the scale of the building. Exhibition spaces are arranged across two floors. A dramatic marble staircase connects the ground floor with the upper exhibition areas.

More than half a million people visited the gallery in the first year of its existence. It seems, however, that once the novelty had worn off and people’s initial curiosity was satisfied, the number of visitors – a measure of a gallery’s success, took a downward slide. In the year 2005-2006, the number of visitors dropped by half. Enter Jenny Harper, who in 2006 took over the reins of the gallery from its previous director, Tony Preston. Her experience as former director of the National Art Gallery in Wellington and director of museum projects at Te Papa Tongarewa in the early 1990s was invaluable in creating a new direction for the Christchurch Art Gallery. By 2011, she managed to achieve a record-breaking turnaround in attendance by initiating a programme of popular local and touring exhibitions.

But nature interfered with the plans and ambitions of many Cantabrians when a series of earthquakes left people homeless and numerous private businesses and government enterprises in ruins. A magnitude 7.1 quake on 4 September 2010 caused damage to buildings all over Canterbury. Christchurch Art Gallery suffered little effect and was taken over by the Christchurch City Council Civil Defence headquarters for ten days. The gallery reopened its doors to the public from mid-September for five months, but worse was yet to come.

On 22 February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake devastated central Christchurch, killing 185 people. The gallery sustained extensive destruction, including a broken glass façade, foundation damage caused by soil liquefaction, and damage to the mechanical and electrical installations controlling lights and air conditioning. Following the earthquake, the gallery closed and again became the Emergency Operating Centre and hub for earthquake recovery, housing hundreds of workers from Christchurch City Council and CERA until the end of August 2011.

The gallery remained closed for nearly five years while undergoing repairs, refurbishing the interiors, and placing the whole building on rubber shock absorbers.

‘Chapman’s Homer’
Sculpture by Michael Parekowhai in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery

During its closure, Harper organised outdoor exhibitions and led the crowdfunding drive to raise funds for the acquisition of Michael Parekowhai’s sculpture Chapman’s Homer. Raising $206,050, the ‘Back the Bull’ campaign was the most successful crowdfunding campaign in New Zealand at the time (Wikipedia, 2021). Chapman’s Homer – the large sculpture of a bronze bull on a grand piano in front of the western façade of the building has become a symbol of the gallery’s rebirth.

Christchurch Art Gallery reopened to the public 19 December 2015. A new artwork installed on the south side of the building greeted visitors with a message of hope saying ‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALLRIGHT’ in colourful, 1 m-high neon letters.

In April 2018, Blair Jackson took over as director of the gallery following Harper’s retirement after 11 years in the job. Jackson had been the gallery’s deputy director and curatorial, collections and programmes manager since 2006.

In an interview following his appointment as director, Jackson said: “I want us to continue to build great collections, work with innovative artists and build new audiences through outstanding exhibitions and audience-focused programmes.”

To this day, the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū building is the most brilliantly designed, architecturally striking, and unique landmark in the city of Christchurch. It not only holds works of art that constitute New Zealand heritage but is itself part of this country’s heritage. Moreover, as Blair Jackson says in his Director’s Welcome on the gallery’s website, it “is a catalyst for ambitious creativity in Ōtautahi Christchurch, collaborating with artists, and extending the gallery’s influence beyond its walls”.

 

Sources: 1. Christchurch Art Gallery and 2. Christchurch Art Gallery, Director’s Welcome, christchurchartgallery.org.nz 3. Warren Feeney and 4. Charlie Gates, The Press 5. Jenny Harper, Wikipedia

Photos: Alina Suchanski

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