Low stakes at all costs is too familiar an approach to exhibition programming. SoFA Gallery’s symbolic return to the city centre presents a lost opportunity at a time when there is a pressing need for our established art institutions to take the lead in exhibiting and commissioning art that represents the diversity and ambition of artists in Ōtautahi and Aotearoa.
While I was at Ilam School of Fine Arts (SoFA), there was often mention of a heyday when the Ilam SoFA Gallery was located in the CBD. It was surrounded by a rhetoric of mild hope (for some future plan) mixed with nostalgia for presenting experimental and challenging work right in the middle of town. So, when part way into Toi Moroki CoCA’s partnership with Object Space, Ilam SoFA took over programming of the Ō Papa Gallery at CoCA, early 2021, I assumed they’d take full advantage; giving over the Ilam Campus Gallery to the students in order to focus resources into a more engaged programme at CoCA and establishing a practise-led mode of curating and the technicalities of exhibition planning on campus. But from the vantage point of hindsight, best intention alone does not make for best practice.
After opening with the crowd-pleasing and timely exhibition Post Black (2021) Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere, the programme tapered away to a series of easy decisions seemingly based on proximity and convenience. Hannah Watkinson (pākehā, Ilam SoFA faculty), The Near Future (2021), followed a Masters submission and coincided with a book launch. Steve Carr (pākehā, Ilam SoFA faculty) and Christian Lamont (pākehā, SELECT 2019 winner), Fading to the Sky was developed for Te Uru in 2020 and adapted for CoCA in 2021. In both cases the work was already made and the artists within arms reach of the curator, Aaron Kreisler (Head of School at Ilam). Meanwhile it’s been business as usual (as usual as possible, granted, during COVID time) back at Ilam Campus Gallery, showing alumni, OSB winners, and the annual Student Series exhibitions.
Off-site shows should be exciting and promote the kind of risk-taking we want to see our local artists doing. I think in Ōtautahi we’re too used to applauding when the smallest thing happens—when anything at all happens, something I’ll call Gap-Filler Syndrome. Critical and curatorial rigour is needed even more urgently when fewer galleries are operating. “At least Ilam is doing something with the space” is a gross fallacy, antithetical to the kind of thinking which is needed to put interesting people, art, and ideas into the few non-profit, non-commercial galleries available.
The final two exhibitions contained new commissions; Liam Krijsman (pākehā, SELECT 2019 winner) More than this (2022) and Ali Nightingale (pākehā) Last swim of the summer (2022). In both instances, not one faculty member attended the opening. An institution sets the standard in a relationship such as artist and curator — here, it appears the default was to be fairly hands-off. Ilam assisted the development of More than this, evidenced by time, mahi, and resources, but seemed to disappear upon notice of the artwork's technical shortcomings. For Last swim of the summer, I believe there was a mutual lack of care and ownership on the part of the artist and the curator—both, resulting in an exhibition which exposed this aesthetic of neglect.
The Ilam/CoCA programme reads like resignation, yielding to the stereotype of Conservative Christchurch. But for as long as I live here I will not believe this to be a fair representation of art and artists in Ōtautahi. Show me the impassioned, the unpredictable, the generous, and the enjoyable.
Ō Papa Gallery at COCA Toi Moroki
66 Gloucester Street
Tuesday to Friday 10-5pm and Saturday 10am-3pm
- Christian Lamont, Steve Carr
Installation view, Fading to the Sky
COCA Toi Moroki, 19 October -4 February 2022