Art History, 2017
The University’s Library, in the Rankine Brown building on the Kelburn Campus, has all the features you would expect of a library. Yet from 1968 to 1982, it had became known for something quite different.
Victoria University’s Library was one of the most interesting places to see contemporary art in New Zealand.
The force behind exhibiting contemporary art in the Library was Paul Olds (1922-1976), the head of the University's Extension Visual Arts department (now a part of Victoria University's Centre for Lifelong Learning).
Victoria has never had a traditional fine arts programme, but under Olds’ leadership, the Extension department provided an array of practical classes and lectures for adult education.
Olds’ philosophy toward art education differed from the traditional art school model. He believed in teaching by example rather than instruction and argued that art was inseparable from the "social condition of the world" (Olds 1976).
Olds wanted to close the gap between the perception of art and artists as lofty and inaccessible, and the activities of everyday people.
Olds’ attitude toward art and art making is what inspired and informed the Library exhibitions. In the 1960s, Wellington’s art scene was in its infancy, and there were few places to exhibit serious contemporary work in the city.
The Library exhibitions provided such a space and works by some of the biggest names in New Zealand art such as Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, and Ralph Hotere were hung on the walls of Rankine Brown.
The exhibitions were organised and executed with a casual, relaxed, and accessible atmosphere that differed from the dealer gallery tradition.
Olds, and his successor Neil Rowe, believed in expanding the kinds of art that were suitable for exhibition. The library shows were not restricted to painting and sculpture. Pottery, ceramics, photography, drawings, weaving, and glass work all found a home in the Library exhibitions.
Olds (1969) said, "the best way that we can help the artist is to understand his position in relationship to the environment in which we live, of which we are a part, no more or no less than the artist himself".
This statement is also the key to understanding the Library exhibitions. Art was taken off its pedestal in the gallery, and brought into the world in which we all live.
By being in the Library, fine art was brought into the environment of the everyday. It was where people study, read, and catch up with friends.
The memory of these shows survives in the art works that came into the Victoria art collection as a result of their exhibition in the Library.
Gretchen Albrecht, a major figure in New Zealand modernist abstraction, had her first Wellington show in the University Library. Drift, a large, expressive painting from the exhibition was purchased by the University and now hangs in the Kirk foyer.
Similarly purchased after a Library exhibition, was Ralph Hotere’s Song Cycle: The Voyage, a major piece in the University’s collection.
By the 1980s, the Wellington art scene had finally reached a point of maturity. The number of dealer galleries and exhibition spaces across the city had increased dramatically since the 1960s.
In this new environment, there was less space for the informal, relaxed atmosphere that Olds and Rowe had cultivated. The Victoria University Library had its final exhibition in October 1982.
Today, Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery removes the need for an ad hoc exhibition space like the Library to display art. But the spirit of the Library exhibitions, established by Paul Olds, still guides the way the University exhibits and acquires art.
Fine art is displayed in an accessible and creative manner at Victoria. It is not held up on a cultural pedestal but is made available to staff, students, and the public as a part of all our lives.