Letter from Dunedin

The need for art conservators in New Zealand

Some months ago it was reported in the local press that the Bishop Suter Gallery in Nelson had suffered a serious loss: several works by Petrus van der Velden had been severely damaged through overheating. The extent of the damage and the seriousness of the loss were not specified and to the best of my knowledge only two brief references to this incident were made in the press. More recently another instance of damage to a work of art was reported, this time at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The staff happened to be shifting a large group portrait by Frances Hodgkins when it was discovered that there were some small holes in the plywood panel to which the artist had glued her canvas. Removal of the canvas revealed extensive borer infestation. In this instance further damage was averted thanks to staff vigilance.

It is significant that these occurrences were thought worth reporting, along with more spectacular ones such as the bulldozing of an early house in Dunedin. Clearly, an awareness of the need to conserve cultural property is growing. If this awareness is still only dim, I think it is not so much because people do not care but because they do not realize: the instances mentioned here are minute points at the tip of an immense iceberg. Deterioration in artifacts, documents and buildings is silent and usually slow. It is also alarmingly extensive. But it is seldom reported until it is almost complete, or when some restoration job has been costly, successful and dramatic. I have mentioned restoration as distinct from conservation deliberately. Restoration of a sort has always existed; the public is familiar with it. But conservation, which is a science as well as an art, is comparatively new. To many people the term 'conservation' is linked solely with ecology, with the farming as opposed to the despoliation of natural resources. It is seldom associated with the systematic control of an environment in which artifacts and documents can be preserved indefinitely; or with the patient surgery which may have to be performed when an object begins to deteriorate. Yet such conservation provides an answer to the question: what can be done? It must therefore be put on the map.

In fact a beginning was made in 1974 when the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council formed a working party to investigate the need for conservation in New Zealand (they concluded that it was urgent) and to propose a remedy (they produced a detailed programme). It would have been extremely costly and in certain respects, I think myself, impracticable. Their recommendations, anyway, have not been implemented.

It must be realized, especially by local bodies throughout the country, that the cultural property of New Zealand, irreplaceable work of aesthetic and historical value to both Maoris and Europeans, is not only deteriorating and in constant danger of damage, but depreciating. After all, it forms a significant part of the nation's capital. It belongs to no privileged elite nor is it protected by one. It attracts not only New Zealand citizens but tourists and scholars from other countries. It is a source of income as well as pride, knowledge and interest. But unless a conservation programme is implemented promptly, much of it will be worthless. I am not exaggerating: as industrialization spreads, the rate of deterioration will accelerate here as it already has overseas.

It must also be realized that, for a conservation programme to be economically viable as well as effective, the personnel required will have to be trained in New Zealand: conservators are in short supply overseas, command high salaries and have plenty to engross them there. Equally important, appropriately salaried positions must be created for the newly trained personnel: otherwise, without that guarantee, after six years' tertiary training (a fine arts diploma plus a three-year conservation apprenticeship), they will look elsewhere. Fully equipped laboratories where training could best be carried out are a slightly less pressing problem: there are two here already, in Auckland and Dunedin, the latter, at the Public Art Gallery, already involved in training as well as conservation. If the finance - which must be made available for conservation - were spent first on training personnel, by 1980 repositories throughout New Zealand would begin to receive the professional attention they need.

Raymond Ward
September 4, 1976