Edited by William McAloon
Te Papa Press, NZ$130 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

OVER the last few years a number of New Zealand museums and art galleries have released books detailing their collections. In Art at Te Papa, we have a mighty tome showing off the art collection of our national museum.

Like the recently reviewed Seen This Century this is essentially a list book, albeit on a larger scale. And as with any list book readers will probably disagree with those included and those excluded. Not being one with a great knowledge of the Te Papa art collection, a quick flick through suggests that this is a pretty comprehensive survey.

I’ve never thought of Te Papa as a place to see significant international artists – in fact I’ve never thought this about any New Zealand gallery – but the works in this volume start around 1470 with Andrea Mantegna and end with Michael Stevenson’s wonderful This is the Trekka from 2003. Organised in chapters split between New Zealand and international art covering certain time periods, we get a chronological art history lesson of sorts.

William McAloon’s introductory essay is “not an official institutional history” but does tell the story of the development of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Art, how its collection combined with that of the Dominion Museum to become the National Art Gallery, and how this collection grew to what is now the Te Papa collection; its slow progression from a steadfastly British collection to a New Zealand collection; the conflict between it being a National Gallery in name while being run by the “local Wellington art society” (the NZAFA). As it’s not an official history, McAloon doesn’t ignore the controversy surrounding, as art commentator Jim Barr stated, the “dismay at Te Papa’s trivialisation of Pakeha art”.

The texts accompanying the artworks are written by a vast array of curators, writers, and academics from Te Papa and other New Zealand (and Australian) institutions. There is a consistency in style, and generally they introduce us to the artist, give some historical context surrounding the creation of the work, and discuss the actual work itself – all in a few short paragraphs.

Like many list books, it’s not really a book to read end to end, more one to dip into, check out specific works, or just pick at aimlessly to fill in the ad breaks while watching TV. In fact its size kind of ensures you’re not going to take it to read in bed.

It’s a minor quibble but I do wonder why some artists get one work and others get several in the one entry. There doesn’t seem to be any logic; it’s certainly not the more ‘important’ artists who are given this privilege. And I wonder why the only Shane Cotton work is a piece made up of 75 small canvases meaning they are reproduced so small here that it’s very hard to read the work; it might be a major work but surely they could have found one more suited to publishing at this scale.

Art at Te Papa is not really an art history lesson, although obviously there are elements of this. It’s certainly not a comprehensive survey of New Zealand – there are some significant artists not represented in the book and maybe not in the collection, Wayne Barrar and et al amongst them. While having a bias towards painting it does contain significant works by significant artists, and it covers both 2D and 3D works.

It’s certainly a worthy book, and one which has the potential to be rather informative, but to be frank, I’m not certain that I’d want to pay $130 for it. It’s not an insubstantial sum, and while the size of the book means it’s probably a fair price, for me this isn’t the book I’d buy with that amount of cash. It is now in bookstores so you can flick through it yourself and make up your own mind.