Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui

Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui with Senior Curator Greg Anderson.

The beautiful original building from 1919 sits in a prominent position near the town centre, with impressive views from front and back. Sightlines were obviously a big consideration in the design and planned redevelopment will preserve and enhance these. Prior to shifting the collection out of the gallery a section of the masonry ceiling fell out, grazing the marble bust of gallery founder Henry Sarjeant and revealing further damage underneath. It was obvious that the time had come to take action. Rated at only 5% of the current new building code, the original building is in dire need of earthquake strengthening and basic restoration, with various types of damage visible throughout the structure. Previous collection storage in the basement was also very inadequate. Luckily the central dome (pictured) remains intact although that too will require a degree of strengthening work. 

The gallery has an interesting and significant art collection of over 8000 items. I caught a glimpse of some of these works in storage ranging from historic European painters through to prominent New Zealand artists. Protecting it has been a challenge given the state of the building - no environmental or lighting control. Just getting access to items was a major issue in the confined spaces of the old excavated basement below the original building.  

In preparation for redevelopment and to mitigate earthquake risk the collection has been moved and a temporary location for the gallery at 38 Taupo Quay has opened. Fortunately the art collection was safe from recent floods which damaged much of this area of Whanganui, although the gallery space of the temporary building did have to be repaired. Moving the collection has been a huge but rewarding task. Over two thousand items with little or no documentation were uncovered during the process and inventoried. Some of these items will no doubt prove interesting to art history students of the future and will provide the gallery with previously unseen material for future exhibitions.

When the redevelopment occurs a new wing will be added to increase exhibition, education, amenities and storage space for the art collection. The design and position of the new wing behind the original building will ensure that the historic old building will still be the main feature visible from the town centre. View the flythrough here:

At the Sarjeant’s glass and object gallery located above the Whanganui iSite at 31 Taupo Quay, there are some intriguing works currently on view. Above the Whanganui tourism site are cast glass works by Emma Camden. These large, weighty forms reminiscent of architecture are really beautiful. Whanganui has a strong tradition in this area and it will be interesting to see more works in glass in future exhibitions. 

In the main gallery at 38 Taupo Quay there are collection works by Vivian Smith and Mary Green, artists who taught at Whanganui Technical College. The William Morris influenced floral designs are particularly appealing. Contemporary works on display include portraits of opera singers participating in the New Zealand Opera School in Whanganui by Felicity Priest, and a large work entitled “The Horses Stayed Behind” by Cat Auburn. This work by Cat Auburn is made of a multitude of Victorian style rosettes created from donated horse and pony hair, each identifiable and spread across four large panels.
More information about this work can be found here: 

Securing the funding for the proposed redevelopment of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui has been an extremely challenging task and it is a testament to the perseverance and dedication of Greg Anderson and his team that a significant portion of the funding required has already been secured. A quote on the wall in the staff area (pictured above) gave me some sense of just how daunting it must have seemed at times given the setbacks and the scale of the tasks involved.

Some of the larger works requiring restoration need additional funding to carry this out and hopefully donors can be found for these. It will be very exciting to see the whole project finally go ahead and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the city, the region and New Zealand culture. It will be a real pleasure to see a vision fulfilled at the opening in 2019 of the restored gallery and new wing.

Above: A beautiful large work by Edward Burne-Jones under wraps whose frame is awaiting conservation.

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