All roads have led to art for Tauranga Art Gallery’s new director. Now she’s arrived home and is lending her internationally honed eye to an array of exciting exhibitions.

WORDS SAMANTHA WILKIE / PHOTOS SALINA GALVAN

I couldn’t have escaped working in the arts if I’d tried,” says Tauranga Art Gallery’s Alice Hutchison. “It’s in my DNA.”

This is no exaggeration. The gallery’s new director has an artist mother, a soprano grandmother, a scientist-author grandfather and a broadcaster great-grandfather. Art is in her DNA, and she’s determined for it to be part of the city’s too. 

“I’m really excited to be here and working with this great new team,” says Alice. “I’m keen to show the work of people who have been neglected and the hidden histories of our communities, and to work with contemporary artists. Translating complex art projects requires a good listener, being resourceful, and managing tight budgets and timeframes – a variety of skills that can’t easily be taught. There’s not really a formula – it evolves over years of commitment, trial and error.” 

And non-stop hard work. For Alice, that began at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. “I was fresh off the boat with an art history degree – which everyone tells you will get you nowhere – and just asked about an internship,” she says. “I think they gave it to me because I was a bit different – and persistent. I actually couldn’t even use a computer so was quite useless, but I think they liked my passion.” 

Alice’s time in the Big Apple was followed by a move to London, and a demanding role at a gallery in Los Angeles. Among other adventures, she returned to New Zealand to spend a couple of years at Palmerston North’s Te Manawa museum and headed off to Italy and the Venice Biennale. 

Alice in the gallery with work by LA’s Gary Baseman.

“I never really had a career path mapped out – it just happened,” she says. “That sounds ridiculous, but when you’re a Kiwi, you come at things from a different angle, and in the art world that often works.”

Alice’s knack for doing things differently has been clearly displayed at recent shows at the Tauranga Art Gallery. Some of the glitz and glamour of the US has followed her home in the form of the larger-than-life work of LA-based artist Gary Baseman.

“He illustrated hundreds of covers for Time, Rolling Stone and the New York Times, then veered into doing his own independent artwork and ultimately into the world of collectible toys,” says Alice. “He was one of the pioneers of that, and they’re highly sought after around the world. He’s also worked with Disney, so he’s had a really broad career. In the show here, Imaginary Friends, we came up with the concept of inviting visitors into a domestic setting, with a lounge and TV playing his work and, of course, one of his 20-foot-high inflatable toys.

“I’ve loved being able to bridge the gap between my life in LA and my new home in Tauranga,” she continues. “Seeing Baseman’s quirky, infectious characters greet me when I walk through the gallery has helped ease my transition.”

Local artists also feature large in the gallery’s landscape. “You’ll see lots of New Zealand firsts, including our current retrospective, Mātiro, of black and white photography by local artist Kapua Joy Bennett,” says Alice. “We were presented with a huge amount of undeveloped film that she’d shot over many years. This is the first time I’ve ever booked a show on the spot without seeing the full set of artwork, but I’d seen some rough camera-phone images and felt it was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Pieces by local artist Natasha Cousens.

“It’s turned out to be a really important body of work with huge potential. Our technician Jamie Coxon has spent weeks scanning from the originals and luckily they’re exhibition quality. She didn’t really have the resources or time to present this work in the past, and also there wasn’t really anyone who was receptive, so it’s amazing to have these images see the light of day at last. There will be a lot that the people of Tauranga recognise in this show – there will be characters that many know, and scenes from a lot of historically important events.” 

Mātiro has been programmed to coincide with Matariki and will run alongside two other exhibitions: a survey of work by leading pounamu artist Lewis Tamihana Gardiner, , and fresh from the 2019 Auckland Arts Festival, a profound video-installation by Louise Potiki Bryant and Santee Smith called Blood Water Earth. All run until mid-October.

Another first for the gallery is the work of New York-based Jess Johnson, who’s bringing her exhibition Terminus to Tauranga from the National Gallery of Australia. “The virtual-reality show features Oculus Rift headsets that have been in high demand worldwide – this will be the first time they’ve been used in a project like this anywhere in the world,” says Alice. “It’s really the first time an artist like this has taken drawing and augmented it into a virtual space that the viewer navigates. 

“Jess was born and raised in Tauranga but has been away for 17 years, so it’s a great coup for the gallery. And it’s kind of fitting considering it’s called Terminus – we basically have the bus terminal on our doorstep, so it couldn’t have worked out better!” 

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