Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Te Papa as the most amazing canvas

Award-winning Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota unveiled a fully-immersive installation at Te Papa. (Video first published December 2020). ROSA WOODS/STUFF. Click here to view the video.

André Chumko, Five years of Te Papa’s Toi Art gallery: Has it done what it was supposed to?, Stuff, 20 March 2023

Art and. That’s how Te Papa chief executive Courtney Johnston describes the holdings and role of the national museum.

This year, its newest art gallery, Toi Art, turns five. Opened in 2018 by then prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the $8.4 million space, spanning two levels of the museum, was part of a major renewal of the museum’s exhibition spaces and offered 35% more floor space for art.

The gallery and Te Papa more broadly had been driven by the motivation that “art is for everyone”, Ardern was quoted as saying at the time.

Since opening the gallery – which has flexible spaces to suit large-scale and immersive works – the museum has had some 2.35 million visits. About 40% of museum visitors have been to Toi Art.

Toi Art was unveiled in 2018. Pictured, a Nike Savvas exhibition held in Toi Art in 2019. TE PAPA.

As well as interactive experiences, Toi Art has hosted a big range of showstopping, wow factor exhibitions by local and international artists; including Michael Parekowhai, Nike Savvas, Lemi Ponifasio and Chiharu Shiota.

Johnston says Toi Art’s purpose was to help remove some of the barriers for people who thought art galleries were not for them. Diverse audiences visited Te Papa for a diverse range of reasons, but nearly all could stumble upon Toi Art and have a magical experience, she said.

She’s proud of Toi Art’s focus on displaying work by women, Māori and Pacific artists, and deliberately putting the heft of the national institution behind them.

It could also, uniquely, host works at major scale – the latest example being a work by the Mataaho Collective, a group of four Māori women artists.

Originally “quite mysterious” and kept under wraps, Johnston said there was much curiosity about what the Toi Art gallery would be and contain when it was under construction.

A landmark Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition held in Toi Art in 2018. ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF.

Part of that was due to Te Papa’s history of hosting bold, radical, disruptive exhibitions.

She remembers coming to Toi Art for the first time as a visitor and being genuinely proud of the strong representation of modern New Zealand art, including works by Parekowhai and Lisa Walker, a jewellery artist.

Since then it’s hosted Rita AngusRobin White, hundreds of ancient Chinese treasures as part of the Terracotta Warriors exhibition, surrealist art, and many of the 40,000 artworks in the national art collection it cares for and loans out.

The museum is proud of the pop-up groups that have run through the pandemic in Toi Art, and its facilitation of tikanga in its dealings with Māori.

One particularly special moment was a visit from one of the Tongan princesses.

The Web of Time by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota ran from 2020 to 2021 in Toi Art. JACK FISHER/SUPPLIED.

Toi Art was trying to uphold artists and fulfil their vision, and collaborate with communities, Johnston said. “Te Papa is community driven, and artists are a community … That ethos of community collaboration sits really well with art.”

But it was also a safe, public space that evoked emotion – whether that’s an “hour of serenity” for parents when their children are occupied by hands-on art activities, or people “weeping in the gallery” to an artwork by Lisa Reihana.

Te Papa was “the most amazing canvas” for exploring art, Johnston said. It reached into different areas and cultures.

It’s art, and.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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