Preserving our national visual arts heritage

A patron watches The Fugitive by Tony Fomison at Webbs in Wellington, part of the BNZ Art Collection.  The painting sold for $1.82 million.


A patron watches The Fugitive by Tony Fomison at Webbs in Wellington, part of the BNZ Art Collection. The painting sold for $1.82 million.

Mark Amery is an arts editor, broadcaster and contributing arts editor for the Dominion Post.

The horse ran away, the milk spilled – it’s tempting to resort to such popular sayings, but in the case of the furore over the auction this weekend and the latest from the BNZ art collection , this is not particularly useful. Instead, I hope this sale will serve as a call to action for our government to better preserve our visual art heritage.

Thanks to the eye of the late art dealer Peter McLeavey as selector, the collection is extremely valuable in telling our collective history of art up to the 1980s. Helen Clark’s conviction of the sale is to be commended , but a bit rich given that the former Arts Minister did nothing in the regulation of this for previously state-owned collections during her three terms in government.

In truth, we have become increasingly careless in keeping our modern taonga in the hands of the public. The BNZ collection is only the tip of a privatized iceberg. The collecting power of our museums has eroded significantly over the decades (particularly in the regions), often leaving them stagnant or dependent on private collectors (take reverence the Chartwell Trust and Jim and Mary Barr).

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The fashion for organized exhibitions of such collections in museums has also faded in recent years. In terms of access to art, these have been very valuable, especially in the regions (this last happened with the BNZ collection in 2016). Quite different from the individual works on loan.

We are losing some legacy this week due to past failures to invest. Which means there are things we can do. The government could act urgently and buy back some of it. And, better yet, be financially smart and invest now in new contemporary art for less.

The first step is to increase Te Papa’s acquisitions budget. Unfortunately, it remains the same as it was 22 years ago, in 2000, under Clark – $3 million a year.

A selection of artwork by Colin McMahon, Tony Fomison, Milan Mrkusich and Bill Hammond.


A selection of artwork by Colin McMahon, Tony Fomison, Milan Mrkusich and Bill Hammond.

Second, we could improve community access and ownership like Mexico did by giving our regional museum an annual budget to purchase works with McLeavey’s quality guidance.

Plus, it’s not too late for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to echo Helen Clark’s cry. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is currently making it difficult for banking giant Citigroup to secure the price it wants to sell to Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex), demanding that their equally important collection of Mexican art be preserved. Ardern like López Obrador doesn’t have the power to stop the sale, but can make a huge difference to buyers by taking a principled stance.

In these times of globalization, such nationalism may seem old school, but the vital role of its government is to treat as a legacy what gives us our sense of history and identity. We find it easy when it comes to pre-modern taonga. Many Asian and European countries have art export regulations that are over 50 years old. In 2015, the Italian government even blocked the sale of a work by Spanish artist Salvador Dali on the grounds that it was part of Italy’s cultural heritage.

Finally, how can we avoid (unlike the US and Australia) not offering tax benefits to donors to public museums, as they get for other donations?

Our size means we only have a limited number of private art museums compared to wealthier countries (the new tastes of Ravenscar in Christchurch are to be much applauded). And when it comes to housing public art collections, this private model is flawed. The Wallace Arts Trust – with its growing body of museums – holds on permanent loan the large collection of the Rutherford Trust, established in 1988 when it was separated from the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand. This was the subject of regular public exhibitions until 2015 when, after being held at the Aratoi Museum in Masterton, it moved to Auckland. I have struggled to find any signs of its appearance since.