Contemporary jewellery gallery, The National, opened in High Street in 2004, becoming part of a cluster of exhibition spaces in the vicinity of High/Lichfield and Manchester Streets, with the Jonathan Smart Gallery, The Physics Room, 64zero Three, Campbell Grant Galleries and Brooke Gifford Gallery. Collectively, it represented a retort to the historical arts precinct on the other side of the city: The Arts Centre of Christchurch, Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu and CoCA Centre of Contemporary Art.
As a contemporary jewellery gallery, director Caroline Billing knew that The National was in the right location. Billing remembers that her High Street gallery was small, a 20 square-metres space that had monthly exhibitions focused on New Zealand and Australian jewellers, and emerging artists. The gallery sought to highlight contemporary materials, artists, and approaches to design and the handmade (plastic and recycled materials were among the new wave in 2004).
In 2021, The National represents local, national and international contemporary jewellers, sculptors, and object-makers and is a gallery that has played a vital role in the development of contemporary jewellery in Aotearoa, creating links to international practice, encouraging experimentation and critical development in the field. The expansion of the gallery’s space, now at 249 Moorhouse Avenue, has seen its increasing reputation with the addition of ambitious collaborative projects and surprising and unanticipated curated group exhibitions.
Billing also notes that central to its progress has been the relationships that she shares with her artists and the impact of the February 2011 earthquakes. At that time she was already wishing to expand the way that she exhibited, giving a context to contemporary jewellery, and she embraced the immediate post-quake period.
‘My artists were so supportive and open to other ways of doing things at that time and in the creative industries it is all about innovation. I had a pop-up exhibition in Addington shortly after February 2011, when there were no cafes or places to gather. That was a key moment as it showed me how important the arts were to our community and how strong our networks were with each other. Many of my clients went on to become friends, so that immediate earthquake period solidified that passion for building audiences and staying here in Christchurch’.
Billing’s attention became less about a gallery space and more about the intellectual property of her artists and jewellery wider potential, The National coordinating “Host a Brooch” with contemporary Australian jeweller, Jacqui Chan for the Christchurch Arts Festival in October 2021 in Hagley Park. Chan converted a shipping container into a project space and offered brooches made of salvaged materials for visitors to wear and consider their experience, making connections and associations between their brooch (materials, colours, etc) and the world around them.
‘At that time I didn’t have a gallery and “Host a Brooch” made sense. All sorts of people were involved, children took part. Five of those brooches are now in Te Papa’s collection and the Canterbury Museum also has one. The works were conceptual and meticulously made. At that time there was such support from all my artists at The National, and I felt that, no matter where they were. There were a lot of things about what I was doing then, that were important and that became clarified and strengthened’.
The National was also among the first galleries to reopen in the central city, relocating to Ng Building at 212 Madras Street in 2012. ‘We were some of the first to reopen our businesses, the front door still opened into the Red Zone for the first six months! We shared a passion for our audiences with Ng and also the Christchurch Art Gallery, which was temporarily relocated upstairs. That was also the first chance I had to take jewellery out of the cabinets for exhibition and invite my artists to present their work in new ways, contextualising their practice. Having a larger space I was also free to show ceramics’.
Billing moved The National in 2013 to 241 Moorhouse Avenue, adjacent to Chambers Gallery prior to her current location in the former Limeworks print-studio and gallery at 249 Moorhouse Avenue, by that time cultivating an impressive lineup of contemporary jewellers and object-makers that included: Areta Wilkinson, Warwick Freeman, Kobi Bosshard, Lisa Walker, Karl Fritsch, Crystal Chain Gang, Cheryl Lucas and Madeleine Child.
‘The earthquake hit suddenly but I was able to continue that vision with a clear set of goals that I wanted to achieve. I set about developing the first dealer gallery for jewellery and craft, representing works that had not been shown previously and arts practices that Christchurch hadn’t seen and New Zealanders hadn’t seen. Influencing and changing ideas about how jewellery was experienced. For me, that was about being an agent for change, always with the artist at the heart of my practice’.
The post-quake phase was very focused on the local and then it reached out more internationally. I travelled three or four times to Munich and was able to more prominently highlight the conceptual rigour of jewellery and some of our best makers.
‘We have a very strong international contemporary jewellery scene and New Zealand contemporary jewellery has forged strong connections internationally, with contemporary jewellers like Warwick Freeman and Lisa Walker supported and strengthened through Creative New Zealand’.
‘In recent years and with more space, The National is now five times larger than the space I started in. I am now able to show larger-scale works which means I am able to diversify, and I am very interested in the intersection of other contemporary practice. I am able to explore this within my exhibition programme. My artists know I have an audience for three dimensional, tactile and object-based works and the handmade is a thread that goes throughout my gallery’s programme with attention upon the quality of an idea. My recent show in June, Andrea du Chatenier’ Eigenleben, represents a lot about what I do’.
As the recipient of the Premier Portage Award in 2017, Billing says that she found out about du Chatenier through writer and collector of ceramics, Richard Fahey, ‘showing me the exhibition catalogue for her Sargeant Gallery from last year. Seeing such a large body of Andrea’s work, got me excited. There is a rule-breaking / boundary pushing and freedom with her ceramics, and that fits well with my programme’.
Through exhibition-making I am able to push people’s perceptions. I showed a large body of Karl Fritsch’s jewellery to Ōtautahi audiences in 2009 for the first time. Now he’s a programme favourite – pulling large crowds.
Billing is also thrilled with the success that the artists that she represents have attained: ‘Areta Wilkinson recently had a significant solo exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery, Areta and Warwick Freeman are currently in the group exhibition, Mark Work, at CoCA Toi Moroki. Lisa Walker has a major retrospective touring exhibition at Te Uru in Auckland and Jane Dodd is at The Dowse with a retrospective exhibition, Wild Domain: The Natural History of Jane Dodd, and has just launched a new book .
I am proud to look back at the last 16 years. There are huge achievements in our field, and you can see that across public institutions and amongst public perceptions around craft. Alongside curators and writers, we are all doing it together, and it is so rewarding to be part of it.’
249 Moorhouse Avenue
Tuesday – Friday 11am – 5pm, Saturday 11am – 4pm
Contact Caroline on 021 0430 533 and email email@example.com
- Andrea du Chatenier, Bluebloom, 2020, ceramic, steel