Jenny Harper

Jenny Harper, Christchurch Art Gallery director, has become a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the arts.  

What was your reaction to QBW Honours?

Of course, I was surprised as these things seem to come right out of the blue. However, as I’ve discovered, it’s a nice way of the community as a whole acknowledging a contribution made in a given field. I was pleased to see the museum profession in the roll-call, with local colleague Therese Angelo from the Air Force Museum also honoured.

What are you passionate about? 

My work. I have greatly enjoyed being actively involved with the Venice Biennale in 2009 and 2011 and feel strongly that New Zealand should continue to participate in this event.

Tell me about an inspiring Gallery experience? 

Not so much a gallery experience, but seeing British artist Anish Kapoor’s Leviathan (for Monumenta 2011) in the Grand Palais, Paris recently was amazing and inspirational. Visitors pass into a huge blown-up bulbous red membranous space (it’s made of PVC). You’re literally inside with no sense of a surrounding environment, but lights subtlely and slowly bring the web-like patterns of the host building’s framework into focus through the surfaces. Then you view it externally, but still inside the Grand Palais. It’s a more a dense aubergine colour on the outside, but still quite marvellous. I’m not sure that any building in New Zealand would do it justice – and I’m certain such an installation would need a massive budget.

What displeases you in a Gallery? 

I like galleries which allow views of the exterior from time-to-time and, conversely, dislike never getting a glimpse of the outside. I dislike exhibitions with too much in them (unless crowding is a feature of the exhibit itself); exhibitions which are ‘books on the wall’ (they’re probably better absorbed in a book); labels which are too dry, or talk down to an audience, or are hard to find with wording too small; exhibitions which aren’t rigorously re-viewed and re-freshed. Of course, as museum professionals, we notice every little flaw – that’s a given!

How did the earthquake affect you? 

Profoundly – we’re simply not good at shutting the doors. Remaining closed for months goes against every bone in our professional bodies. Thinking on it, Christchurch Art Gallery has become the scene of a clash of civic roles. On the one hand, we’re a publicly-owned building which stood up well during recent earthquakes; we quickly became emergency operations headquarters; and we’re pleased to play such a crucial role in the heart of this city. On the other hand, we’re desperate to do what it is we’re designed to do: to get art back in our lives; to give our people something to do at weekends; to ensure tourist operators don’t think the whole city is closed for business; to help the city towards a sense of cultural and economic recovery! 

What do you see as your Gallery’s strengths?

The staff at Christchurch Art Gallery are its major strength. Our collection has its gems, but it’s not the best in the world and – although it’s stood strong during recent events – the building is not either. But the staff have made us what we are. They’ve shown an ability to step up; they’re oriented to their public and to understanding it and growing it; they’re interested in innovation and making improvements. They contribute to the broader professions within the art world; they’re agile and oriented to opportunities as they arise. We also have a supportive Council, which provides an excellent basis for a publicly-funded gallery.

How much has been lost culturally through the ‘quakes? 

The impact of the total closure of any inner city for a length of time and the destruction of a range of landmark and other buildings is pretty hard to quantify, but cultural losses will be immense. For us, it has been really disappointing to cancel a range of various exhibitions, to return loans, to truncate public programmes. Although we’re lucky to have a place to come to work, it goes against the grain not to have people streaming though the door every day. We were so lucky to have sandwiched ‘Ron Mueck’ between the 4 September and 22 February earthquakes, but it is disappointing that Christchurch Art Gallery will not post a new attendance record (we’d already had 457,000 visitors in 2010-11, which is not bad for being open only 8 months!). However, the earthquake will also present opportunities which we look forward to – including our planned opening programme and the opportunity to contribute to the re-build in whatever ways. There have been some interesting ‘gap-filler’ type art projects emerge in the wake of wider destruction. It’s hard to keep people down…

Any thoughts on how our sector can best help? 

It’s very human to want to do something straight away, and of course we received many personal and collegial messages of concern and good will from all over the world. But needs will be spread out, and may come in 2-3 years. We hope that there will not be too many cold feet within the New Zealand museum sector about lending key items to Christchurch in the future!  That will stunt our cultural recovery.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s important to know and understand what is likely to happen in the case of a similar disaster in your area? Make sure your disaster and business continuity plans do not only cover something local, but also take account of when a whole city goes under for a period. Make sure your local area has a plan that ensures cultural recovery is up there as a priority – and that your museum or gallery contributes to it.