Cam McCracken, new director of the Dunedin Public Art
Gallery, takes great pleasure watching people looking at
exhibitions and engaging with new ideas, he tells Charmian
Dunedin Public Art Gallery director Cam McKracken-'I'm
interested in the gallery being a place where connections
are made between people and ideas and people and people. We
are not necessarily a destination but an intersection for
ideas.' Photo by Peter McIntosh.
A gallery is about new ideas and conversations, according to
Cam McCracken, the new director of the Dunedin Public Art
''It's a conduit. I'm interested in the gallery being a place
where connections are made between people and ideas and
people and people. We are not necessarily a destination but
an intersection for ideas,'' he said.
Formerly director of the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, he
moved to Dunedin with his wife Kirsty Glengarry and their
11-year-old son Tom, to take up the job in October last year.
He believes an art gallery is not doing its job if it doesn't
ask the community to push its thinking and pose questions for
its visitors. Sometimes that can be controversial, but he
points out that many things that seem sedate and conservative
now were once new and shocking.
''When they were done, a lot of them were ground-breaking and
caused all sorts of consternation and controversy. Art, I
think, helps people move forward in their thinking.''
Now in his early 40s, Mr McCracken was educated at Ilam Art
School at Canterbury University, but decided he didn't want
to be an art teacher and he couldn't see himself as a
starving artist. Instead he went to the UK and worked as a
prop and model maker in film and television before returning
to Auckland, where he studied interior design and worked for
an architectural firm. That led to work in galleries and
museums as an exhibitions designer and his career developed
''I find artists hugely inspiring. I love being around
creative people and I love the process of facilitating how
the public can join in the conversation,'' he said.
''Artists, if we can generalise, are constantly challenging
themselves. They are constantly forcing themselves towards
new horizons and re-evaluating and refining what they do. I
find artists are optimistic and progressive and interested in
exploring the possible and breaking new barriers in whichever
way, about their technique or what they can do.''
He is not afraid of controversy, as a couple of shows at the
Dowse last year indicate. One was ''In Spite of Ourselves:
Approaching Documentary'' an exhibition of 17 documentary
videos, of which one, Sophia Al-Maria's three-minute home
movie, For Your Eyes Only, was restricted to women
It showed a group of Islamic women in female-only quarters
getting ready for a wedding, and the gallery received a lot
of flak for banning men from seeing it.
''We stood our ground and I'm really glad we did it. The
women audiences who saw it were really grateful for that and
I think the Islamic community was quite grateful to have
those things discussed as well.''
Because of the restriction, Mr McCracken didn't see that
particular work himself but women friends told him the
footage could have been shot anywhere - it happened to have
been shot in Doha but it could have been Dunedin or Dublin.
''We are bombarded with negative and stereotypical views of
Islam in the news footage we see in the media. This work
allowed Western women the opportunity to see Islamic women
behaving in a really similar way - it was about commonality.
It's a non-stereotypical view, and documentaries are often
''I found I got a lot out of the work personally by being
denied it. As a white heterosexual male I don't encounter
discrimination very often and that was a hugely interesting
and rewarding experience.''
Another controversial exhibition was ''So It Vanishes'', by
Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, which was to have been the
Dowse's contribution to the New Zealand International
Festival of the Arts. It confronted issues of death and
memory and consisted of an empty room containing only
machine-generated bubbles which invited the visitor to play.
However, the bubbles held traces of water used to wash
corpses from a city morgue.
The Dowse is also home to a sacred pataka or Maori storehouse
carved by the Te Ati Awa people in support of the kingitanga
''The early conversations I had with iwi were really positive
about compatibility and this pataka, but as we got very close
to the opening and started to talk about the nuts and bolts
and protocol and the things we'd have to do, it became very
obvious that what had been support was no longer.''
The local iwi considered the exhibition culturally unsafe and
had threatened to shut down the sacred pataka for fear it
would be spiritually contaminated by the trace elements of
the water from the morgue, so Mr McCracken decided to cancel
the exhibition shortly before the opening.
''I wasn't pressured in any way but I knew it was going to
cause a lot of upset and it was going to do a great deal of
harm to the relationship we had with the iwi. I wasn't
prepared to countenance that.
''It was an incredibly difficult decision. Two very important
things to me are the community, including iwi, but equally
important is standing up for the right of artistic
expression. It's difficult to conceive of another situation
where I would be deciding not to show a work at such a late
stage,'' he said.
''We were not kowtowing but we were acknowledging the
enormous significance of removing that very powerful thing
[the pataka] from public view and turning our backs on it.''
Galleries take many things into account when deciding what
exhibitions to show and such a decision would normally have
been made at the planning stage. Of perhaps 20 or 25
exhibitions a gallery shows in a year, it might have rejected
50 others, he explains.
An institution like the Dunedin Public Art Gallery or the
Dowse doesn't function in isolation from the community it
serves. They rely on community support and it's reciprocal,
supporting its community with people coming in and enjoying
themselves, Mr McCracken said.
While at the Dowse, he commissioned economic data that put a
dollar value on the gallery's contribution to the community
and was gratified to find it was comparable to the funding
the council had put in, but it made other contributions to
the community beside the monetary one.
''We provide a sense of identity, reflecting the community
back to itself in various ways. If we are doing our job we
are asking questions of ourselves as a gallery and questions
of our visitors. Sometimes that can be an uncomfortable
Although most of the exhibitions this year are already in
train he wants to build on the gallery's reputation as one of
the country's finest.
''We have to be ambitious with our exhibition programme. I'm
interested in a programme that's really diverse and reflects
Dunedin back to itself so that means there's a certain amount
of local content, but the gallery is about new ideas and new
conversations,'' he said.