Museum People 2 – Heather Galbraith, Te Papa

Heather GalbraithBy Adrienne Rewi.

Heather Galbraith has only just put her feet under her new desk at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa but she’s excited about her new role as Senior Curator, Art and is already immersed in her first big project, a collection re-display in Toi Te Papa profiling new and recent acquisitions – contemporary works from 1990 to present day, which will open in June 2011.

“This is a show I’ve ‘inherited’ and I was very excited that it was already planned. My background has a very strong contemporary art focus and I’m always interested in seeing how contemporary art can be shown in a different way. It’s a very strong strand in Te Papa’s acquisitions process but it’s not always well represented to the public because of space restrictions,” she says.

Heather, 40, has not come far to take up her new position – just across the Wellington waterfront lagoon in fact. For the last five years (almost), she’s been Senior Curator at City Gallery Wellington and prior to that, (her first position on her return to New Zealand after 12 years in the United Kingdom), she was inaugural director of AUT’s St Paul Street Gallery. She in fact started her arts career as a painter, moving to London after she graduated from Elam in 1992. She established a studio in Brick Lane but very quickly “found other people’s art infinitely more interesting.”

“That to me was a sign to connect with the art and museum worlds in a different way, so I completed a master’s degree in Curatorial Studies at London’s Goldsmith College and then spent seven years as exhibitions organizer in London’s influential Camden Arts Centre.”  Now, just three weeks into heading up a team of twelve Te Papa curators and collections managers, Heather is “taking the temperature of where things are at and is beginning to think about where future possibilities for art at Te Papa lie.

“I’ve never worked in a collections-focussed organization before, so I’m excited and apprehensive at the same time,” she says.  “It’s a formidable task and one that comes with a huge amount of responsibility – both in the sense of working for a national body and meeting the needs of a really broad audience.”

She’s found the New Zealand contemporary art scene much changed after a 12-year absence.  “There have been huge developments and I’m very interested to see how the different cultural experiences of New Zealand are now being represented. Especially notable are a number of young Chinese, Malaysian and Korean artists who are making their presence felt in a very strong way; and there’s been a burgeoning of talent among Maori and Pacific Island artists too. I’m also impressed by the commitment of dealers and galleries and by the strength of the art market. The number of people buying art now compared to 1992 has dramatically increased.”

In addition to her new Te Papa role, Heather is also co-curating Tender is the Night, a show about love, desire and loss, due to open at City Gallery Wellington in May 2011. She admits it’s going to be a challenge to juggle both roles but once she’s “learned the lay of the land,” she’s keen to work with and develop her team, at the same time pursuing her allied interest in Te Papa’s publishing programme, digital resources and the possibilities of Te Papa working collaboratively with other organizations around the country. “There are exciting times ahead and I can’t wait to see the fruits of our team’s labours out in the public realm.”

Adrienne Rewi

Adrienne Rewi works fulltime as a freelance journalist, sub-editor, blogger and travel guide writer. When she is not traveling the length and breadth of New Zealand updating travel guides, she is based in Christchurch where she readily gives in to her passion for art, museums, photography and fiction writing. In addition to publishing several non-fiction books and travel guides, photographing everything in sight and writing on almost every subject, she is a passionate collector of far too many things and really needs her own museum.