The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki drew more than 10,000 visitors in the first week of January. Photo / David St George
On the day summer was predicted to come to a screaming halt, Auckland took off its togs and went to the art gallery.
An anticipated subtropical storm had yet to make landfall but, just after
midday on January 3, a uniformed assistant worked her way down the queue that stretched from the revolving front doors to the ticket counter at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
“Are you here for the Frida Kahlo?”
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Art and Life in Modern Mexico opened in October but this public holiday scene was unprecedented. “Today,” said the staffer, “is CHAOTIC.”
Ticket sales were temporarily halted – the exhibition was at capacity. At the counter, they talked about the weather (”every time the forecast turns . . . “) and then, a few minutes later, an update: patrons could head to the first floor and queue for one-in-one-out admissions or purchase wristbands for entry to the 2pm intake.
A public art institution’s definition of chaos is not exactly Boxing Day sales at Sylvia Park but the people-counters must have been happy. Less than a month earlier, Auckland’s new mayor Wayne Brown had called the gallery the most uneconomic building in the city and suggested it rent out its paintings for extra cash. Now, it was welcoming paying crowds by the thousands.
Visitation figures for that first week in January were spectacular – 24,048 people passed through the gallery, and 10,142 of them were there specifically for Frida and Diego.
The $24.50-a-head summer art blockbuster is on track to meet its visitation target of 75,000. But if it does, it will be one of just three ticketed exhibitions in the past eight years to make its expected audience metric. And, perhaps of more concern to factions of the newly elected Auckland Council, it is still budgeted to cost the gallery half a million dollars.
According to figures obtained by the Weekend Herald, even the art gallery’s most popular ticketed shows don’t pull enough punters to pay the bills. Consider the financials for the modern Mexican megahit: An estimated $2 million in tour fees, crating, display, marketing and more – against a budgeted revenue of $1.5m from associated retail and ticket sales.
“Most of our exhibitions, most of our major shows, will cost,” confirms Kirsten Lacy, gallery director. “It’s not about losing money – the whole institution runs at an $11.5m cost. We’re not a profit-making institution. We’re a service.”
Lacy says while individual exhibition costs vary, the gallery has managed its total overall spend within its budget in the past five financial years. (In Covid-slammed 2021-22, for example, exhibition costs were budgeted at just under $2.5m and came in around $2.2m.)
“We are currently on track to achieve against our yearly target of 420,000 visitors,” says Lacy. “This is how the gallery makes an unparalleled contribution to Auckland CBD’s revival and economy, and through activities that support people’s wellbeing and connectivity. It’s very beautiful to witness.”
It’s worth remembering public art galleries are not designed to make money. They are not an art auction house selling works to the highest bidder, or a dealer gallery brokering private sales with 50 per cent commissions. Auckland Art Gallery is home to a research library, and a conservation research centre and offers free education programmes from early childhood to tertiary level. “We are Auckland’s wharenui (home) for authentic and meaningful engagement with art for all,” says its website’s visions and values page.
Or, as North Shore ward councillor Richard Hills said at the meeting where the new mayor raised his economic concerns: “It’s public art – it’s not profit art.”
Opened in 1888, Auckland Art Gallery is recognised as the country’s oldest permanent gallery space. Its collection of 17,000-plus works represents more than a century’s worth of significant bequests, donations and purchases. Most of its exhibitions have free entry (including the likes of Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art – 300 artworks by 110 Māori artists, a reported 192,745 visitors and a net cost of $714,416). Around twice a year, high-cost and large-scale shows are ticketed.
The Weekend Herald asked for financials back to the gallery’s 2011 reopening after major refurbishment. Eight years worth of visitation and ticket sale data was supplied. Those figures show that since October 2014 just two ticketed exhibitions have met or exceeded audience targets.
In 2014, Light Show attracted 72,943 visits (17 per cent more than expected) and 2019′s Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys hit 34,044 (5 per cent over). Another 11 ticketed exhibitions failed to make visitation targets.
If every major exhibition costs, then visitation shortfalls push that total bill even higher. Expenditure variations seen by the Weekend Herald ranged from an extra $71k for 2020′s Denmark Design to a massive $338k more than budgeted for last year’s Gilbert & George: The Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Exhibition.
How does the gallery decide what, exactly, it will lose money on?
“Well, we lose money on everything,” says Lacy. “I don’t know what you mean ‘lose money’? We don’t lose money, we budget and it costs money to run public galleries.”
This story started with a request for information about the Gilbert & George show. In a subscriber newsletter, Metro art critic (and former gallery employee) Tendai Mutambu had written: “The question often posed to me was, to put it politely, why would the gallery stage a show, at presumably great cost – Covid-era transnational shipping, large ads on buses, a glossy publication – on artists so irrelevant?”
Gilbert & George are two men who have identified as one artist (and artwork) since 1969. Referred to as “living sculpture” and acknowledged among Britain’s most widely internationally exhibited art, the planned Auckland show was an Aotearoa New Zealand first. Initially scheduled for 2020, it was interrupted by Covid shutdowns and then shipping delays and eventually opened last June during the country’s first Matariki public holiday weekend.
The art gallery’s marketing machine festooned the city with the show’s Union Jack imagery and issued press releases describing Gilbert & George as “often controversial, sometimes cheeky and always questioning”. Mutambu was more brutal: “A hollow shell of once incendiary art turned threadbare cliche.”
In terms of audience numbers and ticket sales, Gilbert & George was the gallery’s worst-performing show since its 2011 reopening.
“Performance is not measured on visitation alone,” counters Lacy. But the hard stats are dire. Originally planned to open for 143 days, its truncated 79-day run attracted 91 per cent fewer ticket sales and 87 per cent less patronage than budgeted. In total, just 2331 tickets were sold and 4506 visits recorded (members and children under 12 can attend ticketed shows for free).
Winter illness and Covid wariness have been cited as reasons for the lack of audience. Delays also meant the exhibition crossed over with a second ticketed show, Heavenly Beings (featuring Orthodox Christian iconography). If the paying audience’s dollar was split, so was viewer sentiment. One visitor who went to both shows told gallery staff the contrasting experience was “like going from Heaven to Hell”. Visitor feedback surveys described Gilbert & George as “amazing” but also “problematic and disturbing”.
“The easy thing to say is ‘they lost money, they shouldn’t have done the show’,” says Mutambu. “But then, equally, there are other shows that they’re going to lose money on that they should be doing. We just need to have a bigger conversation about what it looks like to fund arts in this country and make things viable.”
Gilbert & George attracted an average 57 ticket sales a day at a time when the gallery as a whole was averaging 840 people. In the past decade, no other ticketed show has performed quite this badly. In 2017, Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation came a very close second with just 58 visitors a day; aforementioned Heavenly Beings had the third lowest rate, averaging 75 visits a day. Degas to Dali, the first big show after the gallery’s reopening, remains the ticketed show record-breaker, averaging 924 visits a day.
If you are a politician who thinks public art is a waste of money, then the Gilbert & George numbers are your slam dunk. But if you’re the director of a public art gallery?
“The exhibition was polarising and you see that in the reviews and the comments,” says Lacy. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ve got people looking at the work and having a response to it, one way or the other.
“It failed to meet its budget and its visitation targets, absolutely. There were a few issues. It was nearly half the length of the run it should have been. Those budgets were for a full exhibition window. We didn’t have the return of foot traffic during winter, and then we had extremely high levels of winter illness.
“The next question though: Was it because this exhibition just didn’t have appeal to general audiences? Was it, therefore, a misstep in our programming?”
Lacy says most of the gallery’s major exhibitions will cost between $350k-$500k. The current Robin White: Te Whanaketanga/Something is Happening Here, for example, is budgeted to cost $400k, “and it’s free to visit”.
Was Gilbert & George a “misstep”?
Lacy says when she took up the director’s position in May 2019, there was no exhibition programming beyond December.
“There had been no director for 12 months and there’d been no head of curatorial for 14 months. The gallery was in a little bit of a state. There was no exhibition schedule and I had to produce effectively two years of exhibition programming in a really short period of time.
“Gilbert & George, I knew, because I’d met them in Australia when I was at the NGA. They effectively curate their own exhibitions. They select the works, they create a model of the exhibition spaces, they lay all the works out, they refuse to have any didactic text . . . and most of the works were lent by them with no exhibition fees and no artist fees . . . I was looking for something reasonably affordable that I could achieve in a short period of time and didn’t actually require a huge amount of curatorial research.”
Lacy points to another cost-benefit – Gilbert & George travelled to New Zealand, made a documentary in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and spent two weeks promoting the exhibition and helping the gallery fundraise for its “Imagine Campaign”.
“Donor activity leveraged from their visit has resulted in philanthropic pledges of $825,000 towards the gallery’s international art collection to be gifted in the current financial year,” says Lacy.
“It’s not a public campaign, it’s a relationship with some of our philanthropic community who want to see important artworks from our era have a home in a public institution in New Zealand.”
Lacy says she can’t yet announce what art or artists are in the purchasing pipeline but “it’s really important for New Zealand artists to be seen within the context of an international, renowned collection. It’s important that artists and students of art can see international art here in New Zealand – really, we are the only institution that’s actively collecting international art; that has dedicated international art curators.
“New Zealand is a migratory nation . . . We are the gateway to the Pacific. New Zealand is, by nature, international. It’s a diaspora community. They’re not separate buckets. We’re part of the world.”
Based on recent comments, the “international” nature of the Gilbert & George assisted philanthropy is unlikely to excite the new mayor.
Auckland Art Gallery is a council-controlled organisation (CCO) that, along with the city’s zoo, maritime museum and various stadiums and indoor venues, is overseen by the Auckland Council agency Tātaki Auckland Unlimited (TAU). Last month, at a meeting of the CCO Direction and Oversight Committee, Tātaki reported 9516 visits to the gallery between July and September last year. That figure only included ticketed entries (actual visitation was 76,874) but no clarification was made at the meeting and councillors leapt on the low sales data.
“Once you get visitation above a certain level you’re going to be in the money, which is what we’re interested in,” said Wayne Walker, committee chairman and Albany Ward councillor.
Mayor Wayne Brown suggested (at the self-confessed “risk of being seen as something of a philistine”) that a turnover of 9500 “wouldn’t run a dairy” and questioned whether 122 gallery staff were needed to serve such a low customer base.
“I’m talking on [behalf of] thousands of people who live in South Auckland who don’t go to art galleries and who are suffering at the expense of us whacking up their rates in order to store a whole lot of expensive pictures that no one can look at. That sounds a bit tough, but can we rent them out or can we use them a bit better or something?
“We’ve got billions of dollars worth of value in the cellar that no one looks at. Surely there’s a way of converting some of that? Do we have to own all of those pictures? They’re not New Zealand pictures, a lot of them . . .”
Just how worried should Auckland’s public art lovers be?
Four days before Christmas, Brown sent a “letter of expectation” to Tātaki Auckland Unlimited. It reiterated that Auckland Council Group was facing a $295m budget deficit and advised the proposed mayoral annual budget “provides that Tātaki deliver operational cost savings of $25m, with a further $2.5m by reducing some economic development and destination activity”.
Brown says Tātaki needs to reduce its reliance on rates revenue and has demanded a clear plan for achieving this “that might include increasing external commercial revenue, securing additional funding from central government, or cutting expenditure”.
And, while he has specified Tātaki continue to support the Lantern, Pasifika and Diwali festivals, funding for anything else appears to be up for debate. In a pre-Christmas public update, Brown’s office said: “Funding cuts are unlikely for the arts and culture most highly valued by Aucklanders. The mayor expects Aucklanders to have their say and make clear through public consultation what arts programmes council and private backers should continue to support.
“By necessity, the mayoral proposal included savings that can be found quickly. These proposed savings require some tough decisions, and we will listen to what Aucklanders say matters most to them through public consultation on the draft annual budget in March 2023.”
Paintings over parking wardens? Watercolours over wastewater consents? Auckland Art Gallery supporters have heard it all before.
Viv Beck, Heart of the City chief executive, says the city centre’s business association supported the gallery back in 2018 when it faced its last public funding crisis.
“It’s a jewel in the heart of the city . . . it’s important that a gallery has what it needs to operate. It really is one of our key attractors and, post-Covid, that’s important.”
Beck points to the 400,000-500,000 visitors annually, the current crowds at Frida and Diego and the 19 per cent week-on-week increase in foot traffic during last year’s “Late Night Art” (multiple galleries, open until 9pm) as an example of the pulling power of creative industries.
“Some exhibitions are stronger than others, but if you have a strong exhibition or event or show that people really enjoy, it does bring people into the city and there is a flow-on effect . . . accommodation, hospitality, jobs, retail revenue and tax revenues.
“I totally understand there are issues around costs, but from Heart of the City’s perspective, if you start to impact the access and the experience . . . how do you deal with these issues without losing something that really is a big attractor for the city centre?”
Perhaps, suggests one academic, politicians should look at the city’s art gallery as an investment, not a cost – a tourist attraction that is an alternative to the casino-adjacent Sky Tower and a drawcard for locals who may not otherwise go downtown.
“The figures I’ve seen show that over 400,000 people visited the gallery last year. Looking at ‘paid for tickets’ is not how you judge value,” says Peter O’Connor, education professor and director of Auckland University’s Centre for Arts and Social Transformation.
O’Connor says the “extraordinary” numbers that visited the free Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition “gives lie to the notion that the arts are a luxury, that they’re for the rich, for the privileged . . . If you do away with an art gallery, art gets hung on rich people’s walls and only rich people get to see it and that’s a crime.”
In an already grim year, ongoing access to the arts will be crucial, says O’Connor.
“With the cost of living crisis, with mortgage rates, with everything else that is happening in the world? We come out of Covid and now we’re going to take the arts off you? We’re going to strip what makes the city bearable and you can just grind on in a grim reality? It’s just awful. The last thing you need to do is be gutting the life of the city to save a few bucks.”
O’Connor, who has created and researched theatre in prisons, psychiatric institutions and disaster zones, says multiple studies link the arts with community and individual health (“a study in Australia suggested that public art is more effective for lifting the mood of a city than antidepressants”) and, internationally, the positive impact of the arts sector on city regeneration is evident.
“Look at Liverpool, Manchester, Vancouver. All over the world, the arts have been central to how you regenerate cities. This idea that we have to cut everything back to the bone, that we have to go back to the basics? I’d argue that the arts are a basic for a city. Because otherwise, all you’ve got is $2 shops.”