Collection's lure too great

Robyn Notman, the Hocken’s new head curator, pictorial collections, in front of Colin McCahon’s 16-piece The Wake, which carries a poem by John Caselberg, the Burns Fellow for 1961. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Robyn Notman, the Hocken’s new head curator, pictorial collections, in front of Colin McCahon’s 16-piece The Wake, which carries a poem by John Caselberg, the Burns Fellow for 1961. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Long-serving Dunedin Public Art Gallery staffer Robyn Notman  has moved to the Hocken Library. She and her team tell Rebecca Fox about their collections.

Getting the chance to work with another of Dunedin's great public art collections was too good to refuse for Robyn Notman.

For 20 years, she worked at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in visitor programmes and as programme and collection manager, but she had always had a hankering to do more in the curatorial field. So when the position of the Hocken Collection's head curator pictorials came up, she could not resist.

''This position was a great opportunity to work with another nationally-significant art collection in Dunedin.''

The position had been empty for two years since former curator Natalie Poland left the library.

A review of library staff has also resulted in a new position, curator of art, being created. The position has been filled by Andrea Bell, a former curatorial intern at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. And the curator of photography position, held by Anna Petersen for the past 18 years, has become a full-time position.

''It is great in this day and age when those kinds of roles are diminishing, the Hocken is able to add to staff,'' Notman said.

Together, the team is responsible for 17,000 art works and 2 million photographic works.

''The collection is a honey trap to discover what is here. There are holdings of McCahons, Hoteres ... it's really exciting.''

When interviewing for the job, Notman was asked how she would curate an exhibition to be shown alongside Dunedin's Writers and Readers Festival.

So when she got the job in March, that was her first task: to curate an exhibition to open just a little more than a month later.

As she was unable to fully immerse herself in the Hocken's collection in such a short time, she asked the library's other curators to suggest items and works they believed would suit the theme of exploring the relationship between artists and writers.

She also approached the Dunedin  Public Art Gallery and the University  of Otago Library’s special collections to participate. Early religious  paintings were borrowed from DPAG.

‘‘It’s this notion of free-form words,  word associations that led to that connection.

‘‘We have some great works of art from artists who use words in text, as  narrative, to inspire art.’’

Those who stood out included Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Joanne Paul and Cilla McQueen.

One of the highlights for Notman in  putting together the exhibition was  talking to poet Sam Hunt.

‘‘I’m a huge Sam Hunt fan. We wanted to use two poems by Hunt so  needed to ask him. He was really  helpful.’’

Along the back wall of the exhibition’s gallery is McCahon’s The Wake, a 16-panel work given to the Hocken, which features a poem by John Caselberg.

With such a variety of items on display — as well as pictorial works,  there were also rare books including an 18th-century medical atlas by  Albinus that when open is nearly 1m  long — it was a challenge to ensure they all came together as a whole, rather than a ‘‘random assemblage’’.

‘‘It’s the first time I have worked with these spaces, so a lot of thought went into how to use them to make it a great visual experience.’’

Notman also wanted to avoid  spelling out some of the connections between works so people could  interpret it for themselves.

The works from  the DPAG  are among gifts to the  gallery from the de Beer family, cousins of Charles Brasch, who was a  strong supporter of the arts in the mid 20th-century.

The Hocken’s pictorial collection is mainly made up of New Zealand art,  although Dr Thomas Hocken’s early  purchases were of British artists.

With her first exhibition under her  belt, Notman has her sights set on  the  future, in particular 2019, the 100th anniversary of McCahon’s birth, the 150th of Frances Hodgkins and the 150th of the University of Otago. 

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