Why is art so important to Rhana Devenport, director of Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tāmaki? Simply: "Because it is the essence of being human."
From a young age, Devenport was enraptured by art, her inspiration coming from her father, who was an architect, painter and a "truly creative being". At eight years old, she gave a talk at her primary school in Brisbane, Australia, on Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Devenport drew a detailed rendition of the world-famous artwork to show her classmates.
This meticulous demonstration was perhaps the first sign of the career path that lay ahead, one that would take her to the top of the Australasian art world. Her résumé includes a senior position at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery (the gallery's flagship art series) and the directorship of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, where she implemented the acclaimed Len Lye Centre.
In the five years she has helmed Auckland Art Gallery, leading a team of 100 "dedicated souls", she has focused on strengthening the gallery's role as a cultural leader. As the institution celebrates its 130-year anniversary, Devenport sees an increasing need to support New Zealand artists and position art as "a window to other worlds".
Auckland Art Gallery was born of philanthropy and generosity but in more recent times has faced funding challenges that threaten its future.
"Museums across the globe are experiencing funding constraints and developing innovative avenues to sustainability," says Devenport.
"Great art museums are the heart of great cities and reflect how a city considers itself in the world and how it contributes to self-discovery, empathy and shared knowledge."
Devenport commissioned Auckland- and Berlin-based artist Judy Millar to make a site-specific work for "a beautiful but difficult liminal space in the gallery" – the south atrium. Falling outside their allocated budget – rapidly reduced by funding cuts – the project was made possible by The Auckland Art Gallery Foundation, a philanthropic platform established to support the gallery.
The resulting Rock Drop sculpture is "an exuberant, brilliantly engineered meditation on what art can be today", says Devenport. The artist is equally thrilled, saying she constantly receives emails from people around the world who have seen and admired the piece. "I feel very privileged to have been approached to do a project," says Millar.
"These projects don't happen without fundraising."
The role of an art gallery today is to be a laboratory, says Devenport, "a crucible for ideas, a site for future-forming, a shared space to reconsider the past, and a space to be alone together".
To work as spaces of connection and community, galleries need to remain relevant, engaging and useful in order to attract visitors – a harder task now perhaps than ever before, given that audiences are increasingly distracted and fragmented by technology. Currently on show is Manifesto, a film installation by German artist Julian Rosefeldt featuring actor Cate Blanchett as 13 different characters. With its star power and sense of intrigue it has the makings of another blockbuster exhibition.
So where do Devenport's own artistic tastes lean towards? "Works that take me by surprise, challenge assumptions and stick with me," she says. From the gallery's permanent collection, Gottfried Lindauer's portraits and anything by Colin McCahon are at the top of her long list. She also can't wait to see the Guerrilla Girls Archive (a chronicle of the activities of the feminist artist protest group) which was recently acquired in its entirety by the gallery.
Another work that excites Devenport is Lisa Reihana's panoramic video in Pursuit of Venus [infected], which exhibited at the gallery in 2015 before it went on to represent New Zealand at the prestigious Venice Biennale's 57th International Art Exhibition last year. The film, based on an 1800s French wallpaper inspired by Captain James Cook's voyages, triumphed in Venice as the first New Zealand piece to show in the Biennale's central venue.
Reihana enjoyed working with the team of women who put the exhibition together. "It was a wonderful opportunity to work with friends and the people you admire," says Reihana. "We worked hard to deliver the best work in an international arena."
The work is now on a victory tour around the world, currently showing in galleries in Australia before heading to London, Berlin and Hawaii. Meanwhile, a screen-printed cushion cover from the video decorates an armchair in Devenport's office.
Devenport is a champion of the city she now calls home. She lives in a central-city apartment she describes as "eclectic, awash with art by friends and too many books".
Auckland's CBD is her playground and she revels in hearing children squeal in delight at the new water fountain in Myers Park, attending concerts by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and indulging in the Auckland Arts Festival. At home, one of her favourite things to do is cook for her husband, multi-media artist Tim Gruchy, and their friends.
Devenport's love for Asia-Pacific shows in her wardrobe, where contemporary pieces from New Zealand designers such as Nom*D and Zambesi hang next to artistic garments from Australians Akira Isogawa and Alistair Trung.
Currently on show at the gallery is Other People Think (it opens on March 9), a celebration of the Contemporary International Collection, with new acquisitions by artists from China, Japan, Australia, England, Brazil, India and more.
Devenport showed the collection to Simply You while it was still being prepared for display. In the middle of the concrete storage room, a larger-than-life bouquet was already on its trolley. The work is a photographic reproduction of the floral table centrepiece on display during the signing of the 2008 'Treelords' Act at the Beehive Banquet Hall.
From Taryn Simon's Paperwork and the Will of Capital, it is one of many such arrangements captured by the artist ("Gwyneth Paltrow's sister-in-law, as it happens", says Devenport) to question historic moments of political and environmental change.
Then, her face lit up with excitement, Devenport pulled out a large textural painting on a rolling storage hanger. The work, by Thai artist Mit Jai Inn, was the first piece she saw while leading a gallery tour at an international art fair. She came back to it after viewing thousands of other works that day.
To complete the composition for our photographer, Judith Wright's sheep, Destination 4, was carefully placed at Devenport's feet by the registrar. Even though it's wrapped in protective plastic, she is not permitted to touch it.
This year Devenport was appointed an Officer of The New Zealand Order of Merit for services to arts governance – an accolade, she says, that is humbling and an honour. She's quick to acknowledge the team behind her and is accepting the award to bring more awareness to art's key role in New Zealand and its future.
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