Dr T L Rodney Wilson CNZM

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Wednesday 1 May 2013
Ron Brownson

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Senior Curator Ron Brownson was a long time friend and colleague of former Director Dr T. L. Rodney Wilson, he recalls the significance that his distinguished mentor had for New Zealand's art and culture:
When I learnt of the passing of Rodney Wilson a few days ago, it was not unexpected news but it was still a shock as he has always seemed to me one of my most vital and vigorous friends. He was an unforgettable man, blessed with an incisive intelligence. Rodney brimmed with ambition for all of the museums that he transformed with his redoubtable energy. I worked closely with him while he was at Auckland Art Gallery (7 March 1981–26 February 1988) and I remember him with warmth and affection.
Rodney was firstly a scholar – he was an erudite art historian. He revivified the reputation of Petrus Van der Velden, writing two exceptional books on the artist. He initiated an unpublished catalogue raisonné on Frances Hodgkins, which he gifted to the E H McCormick Research Library here at the Gallery.
Upon his arrival at Auckland Art Gallery, he initiated a research, acquisition, exhibition and publication programme that revolutionised this institution. He established an education service, enlarged the conservation laboratories, brought more resources to the Research Library and employed more staff.

Opening in stages between August 1982 and June 1984 the redeveloped art gallery building project which he initiated resulted in: a rebuilt wing for artwork storage, workshops and a new services wing; an auditorium; new basement security room; expanded loading; two additional conservation labs; an education suite; two lounge areas; a book shop and café; and the conversion of the reference room of the old City Library into the Wellesley Gallery (now the Grey Gallery). With 12 galleries, Rodney almost doubled the exhibition space. 

Some of the significant exhibitions that he enabled at Auckland Art Gallery warrant recall as they introduced blockbusters to Auckland on a regular basis: Still Life in the Age of Rembrandt, Aspects of New Zealand Art, Paul Klee, Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies, Chance and Change: A Century of Avant Garde, Claude Monet: Painter of Light, The Buried Army of Qin Shihuang and Te Maori. Te Maori, in particular, became the most influential art exhibition to ever leave New Zealand and its many initiatives have transformed the way that taonga (treasures) are researched, displayed and published on.

When Rodney planned for transformation, it was always comprehensive. He established the New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland; I think that this may well be the first time that a director has been responsible for innovating a new museum in New Zealand.

Rodney could speak with a beguiling gravitas. As an advocate for museums he had more than convincing charm – he had palpable charisma. In speaking to civic and government politicians and managers, he convinced them of the merit of museums and gained more support for his institutions than such organisations had previously attracted. He would go into battle for change and this was driven by an ambition for his institutions that would not buckle under resistance. His drive, insight and future building was infectious, and his staff enjoyed the reality that they all had to help produce the results that he very clearly articulated the need for.

A characteristic that I cherished about Rodney is that he could make his projects one’s own. I think that I edited more art catalogues and publications for Rodney than before or since. He never wanted to see two publications a year but four, or even six. He was competitive in the very best way, he wanted more New Zealand art seen at Auckland Art Gallery than ever before and he wanted to tour it as well.

Rodney was also warm-hearted. When he was at Auckland Museum, Rodney assisted my father in gaining access to archive material relating to his military service in North Africa, Italy and Japan during World War Two. To personally help a visitor on a one-to-one basis was characteristic of this very busy, very energetic man. He gave every museum that he renewed his perseverance, loyalty and commitment. 

We send to his wife Maureen and his family our aroha at this time.