Curator’s Opening Address: 60 Makers Of New Zealand: 1930-1990 at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery

60 Makers of New Zealand: 1930-1990:  is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery from 24 November 2011 to 12 February 2012. It was curated by Brian Easton.

Keywords: Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;

Thank you for coming this evening. I hope you find the exhibition interesting and provocative. I am sure you will find the evening’s company so.

I should also like to thank the New Zealand Portrait Gallery for inviting me to curate an exhibition of makers of New Zealand in the 1930 to 1990 period. I am guessing that the invitation came to me following my book The Nationbuilders published a decade ago. This forms the skeleton of the exhibition, although for various reasons there is not an exact overlap, while the 15 odd portrayed in the book has been extended to 60 in the exhibition.

That has meant that the exhibition covers a much broader picture of New Zealand in the sixty years. There are a goodly number of portraits illustrating the shift of Maori from the rural backblocks to the centre of New Zealand life; more art forms and cultural activities are covered; attention has been given to foreign affairs and to public intellectuals; there is the recognition that our way of life has changed – I’ve tried to illustrate that the change that women have experienced has been even more radical than the change men have experienced.

It is not a triumphalist account of New Zealand. Triumphs are recognised; Allen Curnow, Janet Frame and Colin McCahon are internationally outstanding. But I’ve tried to capture the uncertainties of our development. Of course we all suffer from the Golden Weather syndrome – that our childhood was much better than what came after. But there are deeper questions raised by the portraits.

The portraits begin with those of Michael Joseph Savage the founding prime minister of the Labour Party, and Gordon Coates who was also a prime minister and the outstanding Minister of Finance during the Great Depression and who might be also thought as an inspiration of the National Party. Each, in their way, offered the vision of New Zealand which underpinned the following sixty years.

As you walk around the gallery you will see their vision elaborated in the portraits which are in roughly the order they were born. At the end corner around, there are three great New Zealand public intellectuals  – Charles Brasch who played a founding role in the evolution of the arts and of the public forum, Allen Curnow that perceptive nationalist who became an internationally praised poet and Bill Sutch who shaped the way we think of our economic and social development. The Maori dimension aside, each played a defining role in the vision of who we are and what we are: what it means to be a New Zealander.

The story evolves as you walk back ending with National’s Rob Muldoon and Labour’s Roger Douglas returning across from Coates and Savage. I leave you to ponder on the continuities and discontinuities they represent.  A good portrait should provoke a reflection; I hope the exhibition generates much reflection too.

To conclude with some further thankyous. I am also grateful to the families and institutions who have loaned precious images for the exhibition. It is good that some of you are here this evening.

But I must end by mentioning Avenal McKinnon who has converted my list of people into the portraits around the walls. It has not been easy, for many of the subjects do not have formal portraits. To give but one example I find it extraordinary there is not one of Sutch. The lacuna partly reflects the rise of photography (and there are some very good photo-portraits on the wall), partly modesty, but also – I think – that despite many fine portraitists we lack the rich tradition that a nation needs. Avenal has imaginatively filled in the gaps, and we are grateful to the Laurie Bushnell Bequest and Denise Almao who enabled the commissioning of some of the portraits. There are other works on show that the Gallery would like to acquire. If you would like to contribute, a word to Avenal would be much appreciated.

As well as co-curating the exhibition, Avenal is the director of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. I want to say here that she is hopelessly overworked. We are immensely grateful to the government and to minister Chris Finlayson for enabling a long term lease on this building which gives the Gallery a home. Its own collection is slowly growing already enriching the nation’s visual legacy and historical record. But the day-to-day expenses are not well covered and Avenal has been stretched. Finding the resources to support her and the Gallery is a challenge we must address. Can I see the Makers of New Zealand who surround us nodding agreement?