Connecting people and ideas

Dunedin Public Art Gallery director Cam McKracken-'I'm interested in the gallery being a place...
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.
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 Smith.

A gallery is about new ideas and conversations, according to Cam McCracken, the new director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

''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 from there.

''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 viewers.

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 stereotypical.

''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 movement.

''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 place.''

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.

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