Wellington’s City Gallery Faces Controversial Restructuring
By Gabrielle Tse
City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi is currently facing a major organizational overhaul designed by Experience Wellington, the trust that leads the City Gallery and five other cultural institutions on behalf of the Wellington City Council. Members of the art and cultural community have lambasted the proposal, which could potentially disestablish the positions of director and chief curator as part of a process that so far has been criticized for its lack of public consultation.
The proposal was first announced to the staff of Wellington City Council’s various cultural institutions on April 14 in a confidential consultation document. According to Sarah Rusholme, chief executive of Experience Wellington, the proposal aims to enhance Māori engagement and improve team collaboration, with the creation of two new Māori leadership roles at City Gallery and Experience Wellington's leadership team, respectively.
However, the proposed restructuring has come under fire for possibly disestablishing the role of City Gallery director, currently Elizabeth Caldwell, whose term has lasted nearly a decade, and chief curator, who is presently Robert Leonard. The restructuring may also cost City Gallery its borrowing rights, according to Sue Gardiner, a trustee of Chartwell Trust which lends art to City Gallery. The Trust would place art lending to City Gallery “on hold” in light of the uncertainty surrounding its leadership.
Members of the local art community have publicly decried the proposal, launching an online campaign dubbed #SaveCityGallery and releasing two strongly-worded open letters, calling for the government to reconsider the plan. In the letters, the changes are described as “structural, substantial, and far-reaching” and “will dramatically and forever change the nature of the Gallery, how it operates, and what it can deliver.” Signatories such as Alan Judge, former chair of the City Gallery Foundation, and Chris Saines, director of Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, urged for “transparent and open consultation” regarding these changes.
The controversial proposal may also face legal risks. According to a letter written on behalf of a group of City Gallery Wellington patrons and presented to Experience Washington in late May, the changes may be unlawful under the Local Government Act. The letter warns that the restructuring “sits well outside the scope of [Experience Wellington’s] current [statement of intent]” and that “this new proposed form of operation requires council input and the associated transparency . . . for the proper operation of local democracy.”
Museum professionals, including International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), have also urged Experience Wellington to reconsider the proposal. On June 4, CIMAM’s Museum Watch Committee, which supports art museum professionals in dealing with critical situations, released a statement asking for Experience Wellington and Wellington Council to “work closely with members of the arts in the city and wider New Zealand to restrategize this proposal.” However, in pursuant of a request by Andy Foster, the Mayor of Wellington, CIMAM retracted the statement on the same day. According to the latest updates on CIMAM’s website, the Gallery is currently in “constructive negotiations” with the Trust, involving the Mayor of Wellington and a mediation team.
Gabrielle Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.
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