The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is situated in the heart of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. The Gallery opened to the public in 1888 as New Zealand’s first permanent art gallery. Originally, the building housed the Free Public Library and Municipal Offices, with a section dedicated to the art gallery. Today however, the Gallery has grown exponentially to take over the whole space - with additions. During the twentieth century the Gallery was re-developed to keep up with a growing collection and a public demand for cultural spaces. In 2011 the most significant of these re-developments was completed and the Gallery now included an open, spacious, and modern section to promote accessibility and public engagement. This new design brought the Gallery space into the twenty-first century and attempted to connect people, art, and heritage.
According to the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, the aim of this redevelopment was to provide the people with an “iconic building that would help create outstanding art experiences. They wanted a world-class public art gallery that valued its architectural heritage, unique site and New Zealand’s biculturalism.” Resultingly, the Gallery now presents a unique sight in the centre of Auckland city, combining the original French Château style building with a sleek modern face composed of glass and wood. The specific wood chosen for the extension was Kauri, a deeply significant medium to Māori, the Tangata Whenua of New Zealand The use of Kauri was intended to link the gallery space to the natural landscape that surrounds it, which was once a Māori pā. Kauri holds a prominent place within New Zealand’s cultural, artistic, and architectural heritage. The combination of indigeneity and colonialism is inherently tense in any colonial country and is especially important to recognise and remember when discussing museums and art galleries – cultural institutions that often embody, display, and continue narratives of colonial dominance. These concerns are literally embodied in the very walls of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, obvious before one even enters the building.
Once we do enter the building, we arrive in an expansive foyer. The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki has four levels and multiple galleries which feature an array of different exhibitions composed of permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. The Gallery’s collections and loan collections currently make up over 17,000 artworks, including major holdings of New Zealand historic, modern, and contemporary art, as well as significant international painting, sculpture, and print collections. These permanent collections were originally developed with several generous artistic gifts and bequests, including those of Sir George Grey and James Tannock Mackelvie, both of whom have gallery spaces dedicated to them to this day.
The Mackelvie Gallery is of particular interest to me due to its wonderful collection of historical artworks. The Mackelvie bequest included a collection of books, largely dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, currently held at the Auckland Central City Library, and a rich variety of decorative objects now held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The artworks held at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki form one of the most important collections of European and British historical and modern art in New Zealand, stretching from the early Italian Renaissance to the 1950s. As a regular visitor to the Gallery, this collection is certainly a highlight. Due to its historical importance, broad temporal range, and array of subject matter the works displayed in this gallery are often subject to change, allowing for an insight into the diversity of the collection.
Turning towards a temporary exhibition that I was lucky enough to experience several times, the possibility for excellence at cultural institutions becomes readily apparent. Recently closed, Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art was the largest exhibition ever held at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. This exhibition was a major survey of contemporary Māori art from the 1950s to the present day and featured over 300 artworks by 110 Māori artists. The Gallery’s website describes, “Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art considers new ways of approaching and engaging with Māori art of the last 70 years. The Māori creation narrative provides the exhibition’s framework, highlighting its enduring resonance and the multiplicity of interpretation that artists have bought to bear on the narrative in making their art.”
One of the few positive things about a worldwide pandemic has been the unexpected propensity towards the creation of virtual exhibitions for international art galleries and museums, highlighting a move towards accessibility. Though a virtual exhibition and an in-person experience cannot be wholly comparable, the widespread digitisation of artwork is invaluable for those unable to travel or attend an institution for a myriad of reasons and should continue even after the pandemic restrictions have eased. Vitally, Toi Tū Toi Ora is available as a virtual exhibition – one of the first that has ever been created at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in response to the global pandemic, testifying to the vitality of artistic experience during this time of crisis.
Toi Tū Toi Ora was a landmark exhibition for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Not only because of its overdue celebration of indigenous artistic excellence, but also because of the successful technical brilliance of the installation itself. Particularly breath-taking was the complete transformation of the ground floor of the Gallery, painted entirely in black adorned with bold, shining works of neon and innovative projections. This exhibition took over every available inch of gallery space, presenting an unusually united and fluid artistic narrative that impressed the breadth and depth of Māori artistic creation upon the viewer. Literally and metaphorically transforming the gallery space, Toi Tū Toi Ora breathed life and modernity into this cultural institution, representing the evocative, dynamic, and activating potential of artistic creation and artistic spaces. Toi Tū Toi Ora represents a turning point - and a benchmark - for future exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Opening hours: Open daily from 10am–5pm, and Fridays 10am–9pm.
Price: Free for national visitors. Due to COVID-19, admission charges for international visitors have been suspended until further notice. Check the website for updates.
Tours: Guided daily tours are offered at 11.30am and 1.30pm. Mandarin language tours are also available upon request by pre-booking only.
Location: Corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Streets, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.
Toi Tū Toi Ora Virtual Exhibition: https://www.aucklandartgallery.com/toi-tu-toi-ora-virtual-tour
Brownson, Ron, ed. Art toi: New Zealand art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2011.
Johnston, Alexa, Roger Blackley, and Auckland Art Gallery. Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tāmaki: The Guide. Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery; London: Scala Publishers, 2001
Saines, Chris, ed. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: a place for art. Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2013.
* * *
Mirabelle graduated from the University of Auckland in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts, double majoring in Art History and Classical Studies. Upon completion of her degree, she was awarded the Louise Perkins Prize as the top graduating student in Art History. In 2019 she received her BA(Hons) with First Class Honours in Art History from the University of Auckland and has recently completed her Master of Arts in Art History, examining the relationship between Portraiture, Gender and Sexuality at the Restoration Court.
Mirabelle has been an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice and currently works at Northart Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand. Mirabelle has experience in schools’ outreach, social media, catalogue creation, curating, research, and art writing. Alongside her professional work, Mirabelle is also the Secretary of the Art History Society at the University of Auckland. You can follow her on twitter @mirabellefield.