Review: Auckland Art Gallery

Auckland, New Zealand

Quick Review

I had originally planned to skip this museum on my visit to Auckland but because I had a few hours to fill on my last day, decided to add it to my itinerary.  This was a good choice; the visit to this museum significantly enriched my understanding of Auckland and New Zealand.

Collection of art of New Zealand, including:

  • Colonial art, from the time that the British settled the country in the early 1800s
  • Traditional Maori art (the primary aboriginal population in the country, and whose language is one of the two official languages of New Zealand)
  • New Zealand art from 1900s onward, which features a combination of artists of Maori and Western backgrounds adapting international styles from cubism to modernism
  • Western European and modern art, including a collection of Renaissance-era devotional paintings, and contemporary art including works by Damian Hirst and Roy Lichtenstein.

Strengths include the depths and display of collections, and the superb display and documentation of them.  For example, the curators organized the contemporary art collection by theme and showed the evolution of those themes over a half-century or so of time.  This collections include some especially imaginative video works.

Similarly, the collection of New Zealand art was as noteworthy for its description of the history and development of the country as it was for the quality of the art itself.  Where the Auckland Museum fails to describe the history of the country, the Art Gallery fills the gap. Among the many treasures in this collection is a collection of portraits from the 1800s. Although painted in a European style, the artists for many of these portraits were actually Maori.

The display of contemporary New Zealand art contains excellent, eye-catching and emotion-grabbing art while, at the same time, telling the story of artists searching for a uniquely national identity.

A special exhibition on Victorian Tales of Love and Enchantment visually conveyed the romantic notions and longings of the Victorian era, and contained some of the most haunting, luminous, and beautiful paintings of that time.  So often, the excellent work of British artists of this period is overshadowed by their colleagues in France and the continent, such as the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Another special exhibition told the story of how the building of the art gallery developed.  Among its many surprises was that the art gallery, a local collection, and the library all shared the same home. Now each has its own, suggesting the growth of the cultural scene in Auckland over time.

One last highlight is the soft sculpture of fruit hanging from the ceiling of the entry.

Weaknesses included a limited collection of Maori art.  Given the emphasis on the Maori in other museums in Auckland, I had expected a larger exhibition.  But perhaps that’s because other museums primarily emphasize the Maori in their collections.

Insights gained included an understanding of the founding and settlement of New Zealand and the emergence of a national identity and themes in modern art such as kinetic art and art of the land.

Fast Facts about the Museum Type of Museum: ArtHighlights of the Permanent Collection:

  • Colonial art, from the time that the British settled the country in the early 1800s
  • Traditional Maori art
  • New Zealand art from 1900s onward
  • Western European and modern art

Note that, even though the museum has collections in each of these areas, it looks like they regularly restage exhibitions in these galleries, so the exhibitions on view during your visit might differ from the ones described here.

Notes about Special Exhibitions: Although they change frequently, many promote the national identity.  For example, while I visited, one special exhibition showcased the finalists in the bi-annual Walter’s prize, a prize for “outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand art produced and exhibited during the past two years” (Auckland Art Gallery website).

Special Amenities:

  • A recently remodeled building that combines a heritage structure with a light-infused addition that sits among the trees.
  • A café on the top floor and a restaurant on one of the lower levels.
  • A superb gift shop, with reproductions on postcards and posters of favorite works, a variety of one-of-a-kind items, and affordable prices.
  • Excellent washrooms—the nicest I saw in New Zealand.

Admission Discounts: Not needed.  Admission is free.

Issues to Consider When Visiting:

  • Leave about 2 hours to see the entire museum.
  • Just a few steps from Queen Street, the main shopping street in Auckland, and close to the theatre and public library in the Civic Centre and also next to the city campus of the University of Auckland.

Website: www.aucklandartgallery.com

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