Ron Brownson (1952–2023)

Ron Brownson (1952–2023)

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Kua hinga te tōtara i te wao tapu nui a Tāne.

E te Rangatira, e te tohunga o te manaaki toi, e kara, e Ron. Peke tū ki ngā maunga whakahī tae atu ki te rerenga wairua, ki reira koe kauhoe atu rā ki ō Tūpuna, ki ō tini karanga maha. E kore koe e wareware i a mātou.

A tōtara has fallen in the great sacred forest of Tāne.

To the revered, to the expert in caring for art, to our friend, to Ron. Bound across the mountains all the way to Cape Reinga, from their swim forth to your ancestors, to your many genealogical connections that have passed before you. You will never be forgotten by us.

Ron joined the Auckland Art Gallery whānau 45 years ago, when he became Research Librarian at the EH McCormick Library in 1978. He had just finished his master’s thesis on Rita Angus, and he brought this passion for research and New Zealand art to his role as a librarian. Those who worked with Ron during this time paint a picture of a passionate librarian and archivist, who recognised the importance of recording what was happening in the visual arts in Tāmaki Makaurau and wider Aotearoa for present and future generations. He amassed a collection of images and papers documenting the work of contemporary artists and their exhibitions, which today remain an invaluable source of information for researchers. And in his tenure as curator, he continued to gather archival material for the Research Library, spearheading the acquisition of artist archives including the Marti Friedlander Archive (on loan, recognised as a UNESCO Memory of the World), Tony Fomison Studio Papers, Grant Lingard Archive, Michael Dunn Archive, PhotoForum Archive, and donating his research notes for his master’s thesis and curatorial projects

In many ways, Ron’s approach to his work as a librarian set the course for his curatorial practice. And, in fact, while working as a librarian he delivered one of his first public floor talks, about Rita Angus for the exhibition Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art in 1990, and edited several Gallery publications including Molly Macalister: A Memorial Exhibition (1982), John Kinder Photographs (1985) and International Photography 1920–1980 (1985). He loved bringing artworks, ideas, and people under his stewardship – and, by proxy, that of the institution.

<p>Ron at the EH McCormick Library, 1979</p>

Ron at the EH McCormick Library, 1979

After being appointed to the new position of Curator of Photography and Pacific Art around 1995, Ron commenced what would become a 28-year project of generating exhibitions and publications, and of acquiring artwork, to champion photo media and art from Aotearoa and the Pacific. Within the first 10 years of his curatorial role – which evolved into Curator of New Zealand Art in 2001 and then Senior Curator in 2002 – he curated a remarkable number of significant exhibitions including Lillian Budd: The Voice of Silence (1997), Ross T Smith: Hokianga (1998), Terry Urbahn: The Karaokes (1998), John Ioane: Fale Sā (1999), Pat Hanly: Pure Painting (2000), John Pule: People Get Ready (2000–01), Marti Friedlander Photographs (2001), Gretchen Albrecht: Illuminations (2002), Sugimoto Portraits (2002), Fatu Feu‘u: O le Tautai Samoa (2002–03), Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (2003), John Kinder’s New Zealand (2004). The majority of these were accompanied by publications. His curatorial energy continued unabated for the next 18 years, with further important exhibitions including Home AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland (2012, accompanied by a publication), Robert Ellis: Turangawaewae, A Place to Stand (2014–15), ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart (2015), Malcolm Ross, Fiona Clark, Grant Lingard: Looking at Men (2021–22), Max Oettli: Visible Evidence – Photographs 1965–1975 (2021–22). His commitment to local photographers was also demonstrated when he was the coordinating curator of the international touring exhibition, Civilisation, Photography, Now (2020), in which he included the work of New Zealand photographers Chris Corson-Scott and Neil Pardington.

His advocacy and stewardship of artists and their practices is shown in the number of artworks that he brought under his care into the Gallery’s permanent collection. Ron was prolifically active: he could regularly be seen at galleries across Tāmaki Makaurau and always knew which auctions were coming up and what treasures could be found in them. He was strategic, astute and persuasive in identifying works for the collection, negotiating for their acquisition and then helping find an appropriate way for them to enter the collection. For Ron, this process was never transactional, but firmly grounded in continual relationship-building and kōrero. Many of his significant acquisitions were substantial gifts donated or bequeathed by artists indicating the trust, perseverance and careful diplomacy that Ron brought to his work.

It's not surprising, given all this activity, that Ron became a leader – icon, even – beyond the Gallery’s walls. He wove networks across the city and country and beyond, mentoring artists, providing guidance, giving talks and contributing to exhibitions and publications including Andy Leleisi‘uao (Whitespace, 2009), John Ioane: Journeyman Artist and the Pacific Paradox (Whangarei Art Museum, 2009), Le Folauga: The Past Coming Forward – Contemporary Pacific Art from Aotearoa New Zealand (Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, 2009) and Fiona Clark: Living with AIDS, 1988 (Michael Lett, Auckland, 2018). He was Trustee of the Tautai Contemporary Arts Trust since 2010. Ron was also a Queer elder, icon and member of Aotearoa’s Gay Liberation movement, and in recent years convened talks with artists Fiona Clark and Reuben Paterson for Pride 2020–22 as well as appearing in Pride’s 2022 campaign.

It’s exceedingly difficult to adequately encapsulate Ron’s legacy in words. He excelled in crafting captivating narratives yet was an immensely private person regarding his own life. If only we’d heard the story of Ron Brownson, as told by Ron Brownson. As librarian, curator, colleague and mentor, his impact and contributions are immeasurable. In the artworks he acquired, the archives he carefully accumulated, the exhibitions he curated, the pithy blog posts he wrote, and catalogues he helped create, he will always have a tangible presence in the kaupapa of Toi o Tāmaki. Yet these only go so far in capturing who he was and his contribution to life and art – his extraordinary breadth of knowledge, relationships, and multi-layered facets of his unique personality are indefinable.

We have gathered together tributes from colleagues, artists, gallerists and friends, which you can read here. Together they show what a beloved and respected person he was, weaving a tapestry of fond memories, witty anecdotes, and reflections on his lasting influence. As Dame Jenny Gibbs notes, ‘we will never get the full picture but can show how much he was loved’.