Art Salvage

From left Canterbury University Archivist Jeff Palmer, Library Manager Jill Durney and Maori Resourses Librarian Nekerangi Paul moving a marble bust of Helen Connon to safe storage.

By Adrienne Rewi

Christchurch has been in the news a lot lately. We have two major earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks to thank for that. The media coverage has been constant and extensive. But behind the big stories – the tragic loss of life, the destruction of heritage buildings, central city in lock-down – the impact on the Canterbury arts scene has been less apparent. While all eyes have turned to the fate of businesses and the demolition of damaged buildings, many of the city’s artists have been coming to terms with the loss of homes, studios and 10-15 years worth of work. Some, nearly 3 months on from the February 22nd earthquake, are still waiting to gain access to their studios to assess loss and damage.

Artist Martin Whitworth’s Christchurch studio, destroyed in the September 4, 2010 earthquake.

Artists have always gravitated toward the older, more interesting buildings in Christchurch and sadly, those are the buildings that have been hit hardest by the earthquakes. As a result, some artists have lost all their materials, their records, their own works and fellow artists’ works. Many were not insured and many will not be able to fulfil commitments to upcoming exhibitions.

Christchurch artist, Tony de Lautour rescuing works from his inner city studio.

When I spoke with artist Tony de Lautour last week, he was hours away from flying to Wellington for the opening of his latest exhibition at Hamish McKay Gallery on May 13 – a show that was postponed from April in the hope that he would be able to complete enough works. Tony (and seven other artists) had a studio in the old Government Life Building in Cathedral Square. His was on the 8th floor, others were on the 6th floor. The building was red-stickered after the February quake and it was at least a month before they could gain access – and only then thanks to the art salvage project, Lost Art Christchurch set up by Auckland arts commentator, Hamish Keith.

University of Canterbury Arts Collections Curator, Lydia Baxendell (left) helps archivist Jeff Palmer and Library Manager Jill Durney, lower a marble bust into a safe storage container.

Keith, alarmed by the extent of the damage to the city, was concerned about the huge amount of valuable art, manuscripts and antiques at risk in city buildings, galleries, private collections and artist studios. With the help of local web developers, he set up a secure site for owners to register valuable works and their location. Information was then to be relayed to earthquake recovery teams so care could be taken during any activity within affected buildings. Around 35 people registered on the site before Keith handed it over to Christchurch Art Gallery Projects Manager, Neil Semple. The ongoing project now has 55 listings – everything from a printing press and treasured artefacts worth a few hundred dollars to whole art collections worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Salvage teams at work outside Tony de Lautour’s inner city studio. Photo courtesy Christchurch Art Gallery.

“We don’t have access to Civil Defence people any more than anyone else but we were able to get into their system so that, hopefully, more buildings won’t be torn down with valuable art still in them,” says Semple.

“Unfortunately, there have been cases of buildings being torn down without owners’ knowledge and as a result they’ve lost huge and very valuable collections. Now we’re doing everything we can to help artists and galleries. We can’t get access for them, but we do have an art transport vehicle and a specialised packing team to help them once they are able to enter their buildings.”

 Tony de Lautour is thankful for that help. He and the other artists in his building were lucky to gain access in the Red Zone about a month after the quake.

“We each had just 30 minutes to go, one by one and assisted only by an engineer and a USAR worker, to grab as much stuff as we could from our spaces. It was pretty tough going up eight flights of damaged stairs, in total darkness with only a head lamp, with no idea of what we would find. I’m pleased I managed to get quite a lot out – paintings for my exhibition, older works and a swag of paint.”

 Neil Semple says works from the Brooke Gifford Gallery and College House were saved in much the same way.

“The gallery spaces at Brooke Gifford were fine but bricks from a neighbouring building had come through the roof into their store room, so we had to remove over 400 works. They’re now being stored in a secure location well away from the Red Zone.”

University of Canterbury Art Collections Curator Lydia Baxendell works with Maori resources Librarian Nekerangi Paul and Library manager Jill Durney to pack art works.

At COCA (Centre of Contemporary Art),  Project Manager and Acting Chair of the Board, Helen Calder and Business Manager, Tony Dann had to organise the packing of more than a thousand art works – the gallery collection, which has been put into storage at the Air Force Museum at Wigram, plus exhibitions and works in the storage viewing rooms.

  “The building itself received only superficial earthquake damage but the gallery was already on a knife-edge financially, so the board had to make a rapid decision given that we were in the Red Zone, without foot traffic and unable to apply for funding,” says Dann.

   “We talked through many possibilities for the reinvention of COCA but ultimately the decision was made to close. It’s a sad time, the end of an era; but the Canterbury Arts Society owns the building and for the medium term, it may be leased out while COCA’s future is discussed further.”

University of Canterbury Art Collections Curator Lydia Baxendell recovers an oil painting by Van der Veldon c. 1895 outside the Registry Building. Due to time restraints inside the building, there was no time to wrap the work.

Across town at University of Canterbury, Art Collections Curator, Lydia Baxendell has had the enormous task of assessing and in many cases, packing up and relocating over 500 art works from the 3,000-plus university collection that were housed on every floor of every building on the university campus. Working with part-time UC staff and specialist earthquake building assessment teams, Baxendell has made her way through 87 buildings and has two to go.

 “I only took up this role three weeks before the September 4 earthquake in 2010, so it’s been trial by fire,” she says.

“In many ways, September was a practice run for us. We set up a lot of new systems then that have been invaluable since the February quake – things like removing inward-opening doors with sliding doors so we don’t have to chainsaw doors off to gain access to works. We’re working closely with the building repair team this time, to ensure all buildings are safe; and I remove all artworks from a building prior to them working.

Lydia Baxendell travels in the back of the removal van with salvaged art works from the University of Canterbury collection.

“Unfortunately we’ve run out of temporary storage space so the university is building a new storage facility and that should be ready in a couple of weeks. We see this as a 3-5 year project and we’ve learned an enormous amount since last September. We’ve refined our processes and our inventory skills and our data base is much more efficient. It’s been a difficult time but everyone here at Macmillan Brown Library where I’m based, has been very supportive.


Salvaging works from inside damaged University of Canterbury buildings.

“And as a result of the earthquakes, I now know where to get help for water-damaged artworks, how to organise the removal of a 9-metre tapa cloth in a hurry; and how to move a 3-metre Bill Sutton painting down four flights of stairs filled with scaffolding because it won’t fit in the lift. We’ve also become better at communicating and getting the help and support we need within the university and within the wider arts community. That’s been one of the positive things to come out of all this,” she says.

 Neil Semple and Tony de Lautour echo that sentiment, both commenting on the collective spirit of willingness of everyone within the Canterbury arts community to come together to help their colleagues.

“This is the only metropolitan-wide disaster New Zealand has experienced during the modern age of art galleries, museums and an art scene and there’s an enormous opportunity here to learn lessons for the future,” says Neil Semple.

The opinions expressed in this blog are author Adrienne Rewi’s and may not necessarily represent the views of National Services Te Paerangi or Te Papa.