Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: a working environment with a big friendly team – and even bigger smiles

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Monday 19 May 2014
Martin Awa Clarke Langdon

I have recently begun to work at the Gallery as the Toi Māori Intern. This opportunity was made possible by the support of Toi Māori, a charitable trust that encourages and supports the potential of contemporary Māori art with the aim to ‘promote the uniqueness, quality and cultural expression of Māori art’.

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So, who am I? I’m Martin Awa Clarke Langdon and I recently completed my Masters in Fine Art at The University of Auckland. I am a practising artist based in South Auckland with a background in graphic design, sign writing and print. My multidisciplinary art practice looks at the spaces between cultures, spaces of tension and conversation. I whakapapa to Tainui and Ngāi Tahu and was born and raised in Papatoetoe, Auckland.

Auckland Art Gallery always seemed a far off place to me. I thought I might only be associated with through my art making – that at some point in my career I could create a work of distinction, one that may be included in a collection such as Auckland’s.

Before starting here I saw art institutions like the Gallery as places that provided mediation (to those in and outside of the artworld) in the ongoing conversation of the whakapapa of Aotearoa New Zealand art. Now that I am here, I feel humbled by the access I am given and the view I have into the way this art institution runs, as well as being able to learn more about te ao toi – the art world. I never considered a possibility of being on the other side of those stanchions, working behind the scenes to make things happen.

Auckland Art Gallery is the largest organisation I've ever worked in – its staff is just over 100 people. My next largest workplace had a staff of 12. The Gallery has its internal networks of teams who work in the fields of curatorship, visitor services, marketing, art conservation, editorial, exhibition design, learning programmes, retail and more. It is also a public institution, part of the Auckland Council structure and accountable for its operations in the same way the city’s other facilities are – for example the stadiums, MOTAT and the zoo.

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The magnitude of the organisation is slightly daunting. There are so many layers and components that make the Gallery work. From the outside we see a clean, well-maintained and ever-changing display of art and public programmes, which show art engagement at its best. I think the measure of the Gallery’s success is just how effortlessly these exhibitions, spanning medieval to contemporary art and including almost every medium, appear for our pleasure.

Now that I am part of the behind-the-scenes machine, I ask myself where and how does a Māori/Pakeha artist from South Auckland fit in? Where I am from, institutions like this are seen as alienating, elite places, too hard to access and where ‘we’ don’t fit in or are even appreciated for what we know and what ‘we’ bring to the conversation. But, my experience in the first few weeks has been amazing: I am starting to realise the value of what I bring in experience and understanding. I am also starting to engage with the content housed in the Gallery’s collection – artwork, text and archives. I feel the richness of knowledge the Gallery holds.

And, as a ‘newby’, the staff here appear welcoming, friendly and helpful. Offers of a helping hand and useful bites of information from different people have allowed me to better understand the Gallery and all its interwoven threads, hopefully providing inroads to a successful transition into being ‘part of the team’. The many friendly faces and even more helpful words have provided some relief to the initial feeling of awe.  

Watching the team in action is something to behold – everyone taking on their responsibilities with confidence, working alongside and interacting with colleagues to ensure the smooth running of the place that you see when you visit us.