Director Christina Barton traces the Gallery’s genesis back to the mid-1990s when the University was looking for big-picture ideas to mark its centenary.
Together with former head of the Art History programme Jenny Harper, Christina was involved in writing the original proposal, selecting the architect, and developing the Gallery’s programme.
“It really just came about through a confluence of lucky things—Jenny’s enthusiasm and ability to drive a project, Denis and Verna Adam’s generosity in presenting us with the first million dollars, and the Foundation’s commitment to backing us and running a good fundraising campaign.”
The first exhibitions were focused on works from the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, which the Gallery was in part established to manage. Over time, the Gallery has built a considerable reputation for its independent programme of exhibitions that challenge and captivate audiences.
“Having that independence means we can provide a platform where the University can meet wider communities and different disciplines can come together,” says Christina.
She says the Gallery also strives to engage students and enhance the student experience, whether through teaching classes there or through its volunteer and internship programmes. “If you look around the country at people working in art galleries and the wider arts sector, many of them will have on their CVs that they volunteered at the Adam while studying.”
Designed by Sir Ian Athfield, the iconic building occupies an unusual site straddling what used to be a flight of stairs connecting the Library to the Hunter Building. Christina recalls when Athfield first presented his plans.
“We looked and said ‘How can you have a gallery that’s only four metres wide but 20 metres long and 10 metres high?’ But he understood the campus and saw how the Gallery could connect with other parts of the University. He convinced us that this crazy idea could work.
“Over the years, we’ve invited artists to respond to the building, and every exhibition we do there looks different just by dint of the architecture.”
The foyer wall was built to a sufficient scale to hang Colin McCahon’s imposing Gate III, the most significant and valuable work in the University’s art collection. For the Gallery’s birthday celebrations in October, the Gallery team will bring the large painting back from its current home in Rutherford House as part of a series of exhibitions.
Christina is hard pressed to pick a personal highlight from the past two decades, but says Simon Denny’s 2014 solo exhibition The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom would be high on her list. The Adam was the first public gallery in New Zealand to give the Berlin-based artist a major show, and he later went on to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale.
Christina also recalls a show of contemporary art she curated called The Subject Now that ran alongside the late Roger Blackley’s exhibition Te Mata: The Ethnological Portrait, presenting Māori ethnographic busts by Nelson Illingworth borrowed from Te Papa.
“Those two exhibitions were chalk and cheese—completely different. But there was one moment where Roger’s busts were at one end of the Gallery and at the other end I’d installed a video work by Turkish artist Halil Altındere that documented Kurdish elders sharing stories by singing in a circle.
“There was this striking parallel with what goes on in a marae—it was like these two indigenous peoples were talking to each other across time and space.
“It was a lovely moment and I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this gallery is amazing’.”