'Litmus: Nelson 2019 - A Measure of Health', Shannon Novak, installation, part of Sympathetic Resonance, The Suter Art Gallery, Nelson.

To queer or not to queer: What can galleries do to address homophobia?

There have been calls for major institutions like Auckland Art Gallery to do better in identifying LGBTQI+ or LGBTQI+ associated artists. New Auckland Art Gallery director Kirsten Paisley believes it’s ‘a conversation that needs to happen’. Writer Samuel Te Kani digs into the complications below the surface of the erasures of a queer New Zealand art history.

There has been a lot of recent conversation in the art world about queerness in public art galleries. Is there enough of it? Why aren’t our queer art heroes acknowledged as such? What more could be done?

In December, queer artist and former Auckland Art Gallery staff member Daniel Sanders made a social media post tethered to a tumblr with a few stats and personal findings about the gallery’s lack of queer exhibitions and lack of identification of queer artists in its collection. Much effort had to be made to even find references to LGBTQI+ artists in the gallery’s listings.

“Out of the Auckland Art Gallery’s more than 17,000 artworks in their collection,” Sanders wrote, “only 19 artworks are archived as being LGBTQ+ related, with 11 of those attributed to Fiona Clark. Doing the math, only 0.06% of the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection is archived as being LGBTQ+ related.”

The post caused a lot of discussion online as to whether the gallery could be homophobic, or at the very least if the general lack of visibility in national collections was an issue. In an unofficial response a current member of Auckland Art Gallery staff commented with the suggestion that, though generally valid, the post was “poorly researched” and contemporary terminology had to be taken into consideration when navigating the gallery’s back-catalogue, as curatorial standards have shifted with changing attitudes and policies.

‘Summer Holiday 1962’ Patrick Pound, 1986. Screen capture, digital version (original VHS).

Peter Derksen, in his extensively researched 2018 thesis for Victoria University of Wellington Where is the Queer?, came to similar conclusions about queer exhibition practice in New Zealand. He explores both queer absences, but also how museums and galleries are important to the propulsion of public attitudes and even the legal shaping of human rights policies. It was while working as an archival intern at Auckland’s Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in 2017 that Derksen first experienced a pointed queer absence, finding evidence of long forgotten queer exhibitions whose curators had become, he believes, figures of “professional neglect and indifference”, like curator’s assistant Lennid Taku of Te Papa, who as of 2007 is missing in Florida, presumed dead.

This specific tragedy haunts Derksen as representative of where current curatorial agendas stand in relation to queerness – prepared for the odd accommodation but otherwise averse, ready to shrug off the subjects of their ‘diversity quota’ into the void of cultural (and literal) forgetting.

Installation image of Sapphic Fragments, Imogen Taylor, Hocken Gallery, Dunedin 2020.

“I have heard cis/het (cis-gendered/heterosexual) curators say that they feel ‘uncomfortable’ curating group shows of LGBTQIA+ artists who are talking about their identity politics, and that a queer curator is more appropriate for the job,” says painter Imogen Taylor, a Wallace Art Award winner (who also happens to be queer). “Um, hello, I can count on less than one hand how many of those there are.”

Taylor was invited to be part of what for her was the only group exhibition publicly celebrated as being queer-themed in recent memory, Implicated and Immune. Based around the AIDS and HIV crisis, it was originally shown at Te Tuhi in 1992 and exhumed from the archives by gallerist Michael Lett in 2015 with additional contemporary work.

Taylor was struck by the fact that prior to this she had no idea of the queer histories in Aotearoa. “Partly this was because it was never presented to me at galleries as a young gay person growing up in NZ. I was born in 1985, which means my lifespan is parallel to the first contraction of the virus in this country, making it apparent why institutions had neglected to support the careers of homosexuals and queers working in the late 80s and 90s – and so of course that has set a precedent for future acquisitions and exhibition programming.”

Michael Lett described similar feelings of surprise when researching the exhibition Implicated and Immune, first staged in 1992 at the Fisher Gallery in Pakuranga (now Te Tuhi). “The scale of [curator] Louis Le Vaillant’s exhibition has never been repeated to my knowledge, and the subject of being LGBTQI+ or living with AIDS / HIV in New Zealand just simply hasn’t been addressed by our major public institutions. It’s impossible to know your LGBTQI+ history when these narratives remain hidden away.”

Whether a residual knock-on effect of Aids and HIV, or an excuse to passively reinforce a heteronormative status quo, lethargy around overhauling curatorial approaches to queerness in museum and gallery practice results in systemic erasures of queer lives. This in turn makes queer life harder, as public understanding of queer identity and experiences remains practically non-existent.

This is where museums and galleries can step in, using their platforms to shape public consciousness and ultimately have more far-reaching effects. Historically, the legalisation of human rights follows on from shifts in public attitudes, making museums and galleries and their relationship to the public crucial in mobilising these human rights endeavours.

“Of course it’s not just a New Zealand issue,” Lett reiterates, “and museums around the world are rapidly trying to redress this silence around LGBTQI+ visibility. The Tate has recently launched ‘Queer Lives and Art’, an online space for queer artists and works in the collection. Closer to home, Auckland Museum have a new Rainbow-styled guide you can pick up at the front desk if you’re interested in exploring the collection with a Rainbow bent. It’s happening – slowly – but I’d love to see something happen at the Auckland Art Gallery, or Te Papa.”

‘Lawrence Baigent’, Leo Bensemann, 1948.

On the topic of erasure, Lett specifically recalls going to the launch of Peter Simpson’s book on artist Leo Bensemann, a significant contemporary of Rita Angus.

“The book is full of his paintings of handsome men, one of which is obviously his lover,” says Lett, “and in the actual book there’s zero mention. I remember someone stood up and asked about the elephant in the room, cue laughter, to which Simpson said ‘I don’t want to talk about that publicly because the family made it clear to me that if we were to discuss any elephants then they would withdraw their support of this book’.”

In a similar vein, conversation around New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins’ queerness has recently become something of a symbol for the proverbial kiwi-closet; invisible queer histories censored out of mainstream narratives, with the implication that they are indecent or immoral. In such allegedly permissive times how do these values still hold up in the court of public opinion?

Tremendously well, as it goes. At least, so thinks writer Joanne Drayton, who has tasked herself with restoring Hodgkins’ presence in the New Zealand art historical canon with integrity to the facts. On a more positive note, Drayton was struck last year with The Circle, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s “genuine attempt to give a more balanced picture of Frances Hodgkins’s life, seeking to understand her in the context of the women she loved and the LGBTQI+ people who were her friends and champions.”  That exhibition was the work of 2019 Curatorial intern Milly Mitchell-Anyon, who curated a series of exhibitions that gave more presence to queer histories at the gallery (including the 1986 Patrick Pound work pictured above).

‘Persephone’s Return to Demeter’, 1923, A. Lois White. Oil on canvas. Collection: Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Drayton’s take on Auckland Art Gallery’s portrayal in the recent major touring show European Journeys is less flattering.

“Auckland Art Gallery offered audiences a more clinical Frances Hodgkins,” says Drayton, “surgically removed from the ‘personal’ and the ‘persons’ who might have offered a richer picture. It is convenient that the telling of Hodgkins’ story has ‘fetishised’ her journey towards abstraction. Abstraction is the big modernist story, so it is easy to overlook or justify the absence of other narratives that should be there.”

Mention of modernism is valid – museums have a Eurocentric history of presenting anodyne pictures of colonised lands to better fit an imperial narrative of ‘civil society’. Modernism as a movement was internal to this, more often than not reducing reality to suit a single (white, cisgendered) storyline about our world. If colonialism was a PR firm, modernism would be their marketing scheme du jour.

“Frances Hodgkins doesn’t need ‘outing’, as much as she needs ‘contextualising’ in terms of the LGBTQI+ aspects of her life,” says Drayton. “I’m a post-modernist: I believe in open readings. Give audiences the information and they can come to their own conclusions. What’s immoral, I believe, is consciously constructing a narrative that allows only one possible reading.”

‘At the Window’, Frances Hodgkins, c.1912. Collection of Art Gallery South Australia

Auckland Art Gallery: a response

Far from wanting to distance itself from this missive, Auckland Art Gallery is of a similar mind.

“This conversation needs to happen,” says Kirsten Paisley, director at Auckland Art Gallery. “There are queer histories here, and if we don’t revisit those histories then we will lose them.”

“The public have an appetite for queer voices,” says senior curator Ron Brownson, in general agreement. Brownson has been with Auckland Art Gallery since 1978. When asked whether in his time at the gallery this conversation around queer visibility and facilitation had ever arisen he answered with a curt “no”.

“If you type ‘gay’ into our database”, he continues, understandably disappointed with an institution to which he’s been loyal, “nothing really comes up.”

Far from being disheartened by the recent social media furore, both Paisley and Brownson feel these complaints necessitate positive growth for the gallery as a public institution, in service to the public. Contrary to the initial response by a gallery staff member (definitely ‘unofficial’), both consider this intersection of interests and unmet (queer) needs to be an opportunity.

“It’s time for the gallery to listen to its communities,” says Paisley.

Definitely easier said than done, especially for a large outfit like Auckland Art Gallery which to some degree is expected to give an abbreviated-yet-somehow-historically-accurate version of art in New Zealand. As to how other major national institutions are doing, I’ll leave you to do your own audit locally.

Installation view of Queer Algorithms, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland

Doing queer mathematics

Just around the corner and up the hill at the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery, a collection of specifically queer, local and international, archival and contemporary works are on show in Queer Algorithms, curated by Birmingham expat Lisa Beauchamp. As a smaller space charged with university principles and not burdened with a major collection and their archival obligations such a show is arguably easier to mount.

Beauchamp tells me she wanted to “start from the idea of abundance, as so often (and notably under the eye of cisgendered and/or heterosexual curatorial staff) queerness is interpreted as its struggles and losses. I’m not refuting that these are relevant to queer histories and shouldn’t be overlooked, but only making room for queer voices and stories that fit a preordained narrative of victimisation isn’t my idea of an emancipatory practice.”

“I believe all public art institutions have a social responsibility to their public,” she says. “I was surprised at how few queer art-themed shows there had been in NZ when I arrived.” However, Beauchamp also understands what a massive undertaking overhauling collection databases and generating more inclusive programming can be.

“During my time in the UK, public institutions seemed to be becoming increasingly aware of the need to be more representative … and many public institutions are playing catch-up and implementing ways to diversify their collections which historically have been the mainstay of white male artists.”

Daniel Sanders recently opened his own small gallery space, Parasite, perhaps wanting to demonstrate to larger galleries the potential value in giving platform to queer sensibilities. “Historically, exhibitions in institutions have been situated around the queer subject as a problem, through focusing on histories of HIV/AIDS or legalisation,” he explains. “Shielding visitors from LGBTQI+ themed artwork suggests that artwork’s immorality and exposes a discomfort with same-sex desire and gender diversity, further instilling a sense of shame [for LGBTQI+ people].”

Parasite presents itself as a platform for more positive alternatives. Channelling a monochrome utopia (but also dystopia?) through the eyes of artist Tash Keddy, Parasite’s first featured show, Grind House, was on in March before lockdown.

From ‘Grind House’, Tash Keddy. Parasite, 2020

Keddy had this to say on pointed queer absences amidst collections allegedly representative of ‘the canon’: “I haven’t seen brazen resistance as much as complete avoidance or wilful blindness in engaging with obviously queer works, which makes some sort of cynical sense to me; people don’t engage when they feel uncomfortable. The irony is that this is exactly when you should engage!

“There is a massive history of great and impactful queer art being born out of vocal resistance to the existence of queer identities. There is a framework for assertion in the face of an openly hostile mainstream, but I think our new task as queer artists is to forge a new way of engaging with avoidant opponents.”

The difference between larger institutions and an artist-run space like Parasite, or even a mid-level institution like Gus Fisher Gallery, is obviously both logistical and political. Rather than being a purely ideological bias towards representation of cis-gendered ‘straight’ art, there’s also the fine line being walked by somewhere like Auckland Art Gallery between bureaucratic machine and venerated cultural hub. Artist-run spaces, while offering freedom of expression and discussion, aren’t as hindered by things like staffing, government subsidies and conservative benefactors. Their freedom is in lack of resources, while AAG’s constraints are in managing amassed resources and being expected to some extent to operate like a major business, but under council policy with all its attendant ratepayer-charged politics.

Queer Algorithms at Gus Fisher, meanwhile, is a group show of wild diversity with a significant local presence alongside bigger global names. Call it a Goldilocks-effect: by being not too big and not too small, the gallery is just right for Beauchamp’s curatorial vision. Or maybe call it curatorial freedom, with minimal corporate and public agenda.

While Queer Algorithms can hardly be expected to be representative of the entire community, as Beauchamp readily admits, she still hopes it can act as a bridge between engaged publics and their more unconcerned counterparts. More than this, such shows can action the shuttling of works and artists from more queer-centric artist-run spaces to larger galleries like Auckland Art Gallery, acting as artists do themselves as  a sort of go-between. Call me ignorant, but could that be a thing?



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