New Zealand’s visual culture has a distinctive mix. Its tensions and intersections are between international and local practices, and it combines European and Polynesian, and more specifically Māori, histories and traditions. The possibility of distinct cultural forms emerged at a moment in the eighteenth century when a European art tradition expanded to encompass representations of traditional Pacific visual cultures. The moment was marked when artists such as Sydney Parkinson, on James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific in 1768-71, represented the detailed moko or facial tattoos of Māori for consumption by European audiences; and when Māori began to adopt the materials and technologies of European explorers for their own cultural purposes.
Te Papa’s art collection is over 130 years old, if its origins are dated to Bishop Monrad’s gift of European prints to the Colonial Museum in 1869. At its core are some 11,000 items by about 2500 artists. It intersects with the Museum’s other collections - through historical photography, botanical art, design and craft, archival material, and Māori and Pacific visual culture.
The contemporary concept of art existing within a broad field of visual culture was preceded by other theories. The formation of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington in 1889 co-opted two cultural ideas: a national institution with an educative purpose. Colonial dependency would generate one of the Academy’s strengths: its holdings of British art, which continued to be a curatorial priority during the 1940s after the National Art Gallery was established on the foundation of the Academy collection. The Academy had also acquired art made in New Zealand, such as Girolamo Pieri Nerli’s At Rotorua, 1897. The proportion of local art collected by the National Art Gallery increased steadily as confidence in the significance of the art and of its institution grew. The modernist idea of an autonomous national gallery strongly committed to contemporary practice was boosted from 1979 to 1989, under the directorship of Luit Bieringa, when major works such as Ralph Hotere’s Black Phoenix (1984-88), were acquired, as well as significant holdings of international (especially American) and contemporary New Zealand photography.
Significant gifts and bequests have been added to the collection at different times and by different routes, inflecting the course of ideological and cultural concepts. The Rex Nan Kivell Collection of post-war British artists, the Sir John Ilott Collection of international prints, the Archdeacon Smythe Collection, the Harold Wright Collection, and the Judge Julius Isaacs Bequest have gifted art works as various as Simeon Solomon’s Head,1895, and Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise, 1959. Other significant donations have included Caroline Chevalier’s gift of many of her husband’s New Zealand drawings and watercolours, E A Atkinson on behalf of D K Richmond, Hans and Martha Lachmann, and the Sir Mountford Tosswill Woollaston Archive.
Numerous important trust funds have contributed to growth in specific areas. Several major purchases - all of which shift the collection’s centre of gravity - have included the Thomas Borrow Collection, the Gordon Walters Archive, the Burton Brothers Collection, and the Theo Schoon Archive.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act of 1992 integrated collections formerly compartmentalised as art, ethnology, history, and natural science - or, more simply, according to a ‘fine’ and ‘illustrative’ distinction. The National Museum’s Fine Arts Collection - much of which (including Japanese prints and English caricatures) had already been transferred to the National Art Gallery in the 1980s - contributed important works on Māori themes by Joseph Gaut, Wilhelm Dittmer, Horatio Gordon Robley, and others. Natural history artists rejoined a mainstream from which they had been largely excluded by colonial and subsequent modernist priorities.
Te Papa’s art and visual culture collecting policies now incorporate significant historical material such as Conrad Martens’ Bay of Islands, Kororareka, New Zealand, 1841, acquired in 2002; major contemporary commissions such as Lisa Reihana’s native portraits n.19897, 1997, which has been exhibited at the Sydney Biennale, the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, and the Asia Society in New York; emerging artists such as Gavin Hipkins; as well as nationally significant commercial design material as represented in the Bernard Roundhill Collection, acquired in 2002.