Tributes to Ron Brownson

Tributes to Ron Brownson

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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.

On Thursday 16 March we farewelled our dear colleague and friend Ron Brownson in a whakamaumaharatanga memorial celebrating his life. It was a very moving and special event, which conveyed how respected and loved Ron is, and the strong connections that he forged with people and communities across Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. We invite you to watch the recording of the memorial – this, together with the programme for the event, is available at the bottom of this page. 

The speeches at the memorial – shared by Mary Trewby, Natasha Conland, Fatu Feu'u, Dagmar Dyck and Siliga Setoga – illustrate the breadth of Ron’s expertise, passion and care. 

It’s exceedingly difficult to adequately encapsulate the legacy of Ron Brownson in words. 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.

In addition to the tributes shared at the memorial, we have brought together reflections from colleagues, artists, gallerists and friends, which show what a beloved and respected person Ron was. Together they weave 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’.

Further tributes will be posted in the coming days. There is also a condolences book at the Gallery, which we invite you to contribute to. 

<p>Ron, photographed by Raymond Sagapolutele.</p>

Ron, photographed by Raymond Sagapolutele.

Mark Adams, photographer:

From a purely selfish point of view, Ron was the person in a curatorial position most supportive to me over 50 years of my practice. So I owe him. That aside, I am very fond of him and have been since early days. He was the first curator to think that something I had done was actually something and backed it up by being the first person to buy my works for a collection.

I was conscious of his interest in photography; he was a video and photography artist himself from the days of Real Pictures gallery in His Majesty’s Arcade. Concretely in the early 1990s he wrote for the catalogue that Haru Sameshima and I produced for our show, After the Fact and Silence at Lopdell House (1993). He continued this support, including me in shows with fellow photographers and painters John Kinder, Chris Corson-Scott, Haru Sameshima, John Pule and William Hodges and continuing to get work into the collection.

For the last year, Ron and I have been working on a survey show of my work. Every visit to the studio he would bring me presents. Vitamins, shoes, baklava, a rug from Turkmenistan, packets of nori, woolly gloves and a hat.

I found his style of looking at and responding to works very idiosyncratic, which helped discover and open up unforeseen interconnected vistas and their interesting possibilities. Good for artists not to have their expectations fulfilled. As he said the other Friday, ‘people think I’m nice but I’m not… I don’t do what they think they want me to do.’ We fell about laughing. And Gilbert and George told him he was the worst dressed curator they had ever encountered. Well, that could turn out to be a compliment.

Who can follow in his footsteps? 

<p>Ron leading an audio-described tour in&nbsp;<em>Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera | Fashion Activists</em>, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019.</p>

Ron leading an audio-described tour in Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera | Fashion Activists, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019.

Dagmar Dyck, artist: 

The Samoan proverb O le ala i le pule, o le tautua describes the road to leadership as being through service. Leadership for our Moana peoples is not an individual pursuit, but is exemplified in how we serve our community and provide for our people. Qualities that define good leadership are humility, listening to the needs of others and dedicating oneself to a life of service.

I know Ron would never consider himself as one of our Pacific arts leaders, but his life of dedicated service to so many of us – individually and collectively as a community – warrants such recognition and acknowledgement.

Ron played a pivotal role in the development and promotion of Pacific art in this country – for those fortunate enough to have worked with him, we share a mutual feeling of gratitude for his advocacy role not only here at the Auckland Art Gallery but importantly at the heart and coalface of our Pacific arts community. Much of his most enduring and meaningful work amongst our community happened outside these walls. He was the only Auckland Art Gallery curator we would see attending our openings and exhibitions held on the periphery of this city. He would turn up at Corbans Estate Arts Centre, Māngere Arts Centre, Fresh Gallery Ōtara and Vunilagi Vou, to name a few. He didn’t let anyone know what he was doing but he moved quietly and deliberately amongst our community – and we felt him.

We felt him in the way he held a wide and deep understanding of Pacific arts. He penned about our practices, our stories and histories, reflecting his deep commitment and visionary mind of recording and documenting our voices. This wasn’t surface involvement or posturing – this was authentic shoulder-to-shoulder support and advocacy.

Over the decades Ron was a constant support to my practice: helping with support letters for Creative New Zealand proposals – he always said yes! – coffee catch-ups, likes on my Instagram, and attending exhibitions. And I know he multiplied these acts – and more – for so many of us. All of this done under his own steam, often in his own time, without fanfare or recognition.

It was just what he did. He showed up, he said yes, and he cheered us on, because ultimately Ron had a deep-seated belief in all of us. He saw us, he believed in us, and he valued us. He actively pursued opening whatever doors he could to ensure Pacific arts, and I quote, ‘develop at the exponential rate for which the community is asking it to achieve’.

His heart was good and pure, and he will be deeply missed. Ron leaves a huge hole in our ecosystem as a co-conspirator and cheerleader, without ego or agenda. He cared deeply and we felt his love. Ron was not just a curator or colleague, he was our friend, and as a village we profoundly mourn his passing.

We love you, Ron. Ofa lahi atu.

<p>Ron at the opening of&nbsp;<em>HOME AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland</em>, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012.</p>

Ron at the opening of HOME AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012.

Dame Jenny Gibbs, patron of the arts:

It is my privilege to write a few words about our dear Ron. Back in the 1980s, when the Patrons group was founded, Ron, although relatively new on the Gallery staff, was already the walking encyclopaedia of the history of the Gallery. He was already showing the typical Ron characteristic of researching everything he was involved with. He was also showing the traits that so endeared him to the Patrons and to everyone else. He had an amazingly retentive memory and was an unending source of little personal stories about every artist and every artwork. He also had a wicked sense of humour. He had a fund of stories which from anyone else might have been called ‘gossip’, but from Ron it came from a lifetime of fascination and knowledge about art and artists.

He and I shared a passion for African and Oceanic art, about which he was very knowledgeable and of which he had a substantial collection. Similarly, he had a good collection of photography, but since he was such a private person, very few got to see it.

He was a devoted and dutiful son who spent considerable time in recent years driving long distances to visit his late father.

Ron was really a Renaissance man. He knew an extraordinary amount about a wide range of things. I can give you a small recent example: when he last visited my apartment about a month ago, he noted that my fairly old leather furniture had multiple scratches from many years of uninhibited dogs jumping up. ‘I know how to fix this,’ said Ron. ‘You must use mink oil.’ Not only had I never used it; I had never heard of it. Duly, a courier pack arrived with a container of mink oil and shortly after, a horsehair brush which Ron insisted was the only way to apply it. How many of you know of this solution to scratches on leather furniture?

As I said, a true Renaissance man. Ron, we will miss you deeply.

With love.  

<p>Ron with Dame Jenny Gibbs and Natasha Conland, June 2022.&nbsp;</p>

Ron with Dame Jenny Gibbs and Natasha Conland, June 2022. 

John Gow, art dealer:

Ron had been a part of my life in the art world for the past 40 years. So many conversations on such a wide range of topics, which were always intimidating in their detail and inclusion of little-known facts. This knowledge ranged from Māori and Pacific taonga to antique Persian rugs, from little-known artists to Colin McCahon. The last time I was privileged to hear Ron speak publicly was at the Gallery’s Colin McCahon exhibition, A Place to Paint (2019). His genuine enthusiasm and love of the works he spoke to was so very evident and eloquent. His gestures and intimations – the place of theatre. I started taking photographs of him as he conducted us from work to work.

He was always so pleased to welcome a much younger me into the  Research Library at the Auckland Art Gallery in the 1980s. He was the chief librarian and that was very much his domain. All one had to do was ask and he would know exactly where the book you needed was. He was patient, tolerant and always happy to share a snippet of knowledge with a much younger me.

Ron worked closely with Roger Blackley at the Gallery. They were the dynamic duo on the Gallery’s staff in the 1980s. Roger died in 2019, which was also a very sad occasion. Between them they had a wicked sense of humour and both had that sparkle in their eyes when discussing art-related matters and an even bigger twinkle when disclosing some juicy gossip!

Ron went on to become the Senior Curator of New Zealand and Pacific art, supporting and encouraging so many artists from this position. John Pule, one such artist, lit a candle for him in Niue the night after he died. I could see the smile that this would have brought to Ron’s face, as such traditions were important to him. 

I loved his phone calls. So often cloaked in a rather secretive voice regarding the value of a certain work for insurance or where he might find a work in a private collection. ‘And John please send an invoice for this work as I do so much appreciate your advice on this,’ to which I would say that it was our pleasure to help, and no invoice would be forthcoming. This was a wonderful playful game we played, but he was always so appreciative of anything we did for the Gallery.

His life’s work was for the betterment of Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tāmaki. He was passionate about the institution and everything it stood for and achieved. It was so much a part of his life that he said to me that he would be carried out feet first from his beloved place of work. This you achieved, Ron, albeit far too soon.

<p>Ron Brownson conducting a tour in&nbsp;<em>Civilisation, Photography, Now</em>, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2020.</p>

Ron Brownson conducting a tour in Civilisation, Photography, Now, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2020.

Sarah Hillary, Principal Conservator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki:

I first met Ron when I was an art history student in the late 70s and using the research library. It was before he became a curator and Ron helped me and fellow student, Vicki Robson, with our research into Robert Nettleton Field.

It was a few years later, in 1983 and me aged 26, that I joined the Gallery to do an internship in conservation. I was still reeling from a family tragedy and exhausted from completing a master’s degree with two very young children, and it was Ron and Alexa who took me under their wings and helped me see another more positive world. 

It was a highly stimulating environment, and there was always some sort of excitement or drama going on, as these old university friends were so incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the world, their work, and worked extremely hard, but they also knew how to have fun, to look stylish and eat well. 

Ron could be devious and theatrical and no matter what birthday came around, he was always 47. We were always going to swap jobs for a day and Ron was always sharing pieces of information that might be useful for me. He would often drop into the conservation studio and before long the room would be full of revolutionary talk and laughter.

I think the most important thing that Ron taught me was about beauty – not just that visual stuff, but the beauty shown in kindness and generosity – something that he showed to a lot of us. Ron had the knack of making us all feel a little bit special.

Ron was a unique and special human being, and I am so grateful for having known him. 

Arohanui, e hoa.

<p>Ron with Alexa Johnston, Roger Blackley and Andrew Bogle at Roger Blackley&#39;s farewell, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1998.&nbsp;</p>

Ron with Alexa Johnston, Roger Blackley and Andrew Bogle at Roger Blackley's farewell, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1998. 

Alexa Johnston, curator,  Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1978–97:

On a momentous day in March 1972, at my first art history lecture, I met Ron Brownson and Roger Blackley – both of them extremely bright, attractive, energetic, irreverent and witty. Eventually we all completed our master’s degrees in art history and Roger went overseas. Then, early in 1978, Ron asked me to help him write an application for a position at the Auckland City Art Gallery – Research Librarian. He got the job and six months later rang me to say another vacancy was coming up – Curator of New Zealand Painting and Sculpture – and I should apply. This time he helped me write my application and I started at the Gallery in September that year. Roger returned from Italy a few years later and joined us, Andrew Bogle was Curator of Prints and Drawings, and the four of us formed the curatorial team for several years.

The Research Library, with Ron in command, became the hub of our work with endless discussions and arguments about potential exhibitions, catalogues, and acquisitions, lots of hard work and hilarity and lunches on the balcony looking out over the fountain. Ron was a tireless supporter of contemporary artists. He seemed to know everything about everyone in the art world, and his ability to direct people to books that would interest them was legendary.

As a champion of Gallery publications, Ron always had ideas for stretching limited budgets. I particularly remember his suggestion that the catalogue for the 1992 The 1950s Show should be a special edition of the magazine Home & Building. Brilliant.

Ron made an immeasurable contribution to all aspects of Gallery life, and to the arts community. I am grateful to have worked with him and to have had him as my friend.

<p>Ron at the &#39;dot&#39; themed staff Christmas party, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2017.&nbsp;</p>

Ron at the 'dot' themed staff Christmas party, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2017. 

Mary Kisler, Curator Emerita, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki:

If I had to choose one word to describe Ron, it would be ‘chameleon’. Highly attuned to his surroundings, Ron donned the appropriate ‘cloak’ to suit an occasion, although his own fashion sense was curious, sometimes imitating his father in more recent years, then surprising everyone with a jacket or coat that spoke of a wilder side. He was funny, kind, welcoming, stubborn at times, mercurial, and constantly surprising with his breadth of knowledge. A collector with an eagle eye, he couldn’t resist old English furniture, porcelain and rugs and completely immersed himself in each new interest so that it was never just a ‘Turkish rug’, but one woven on some southern slope of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. He could name the dyes used and talk about the weaving in such depth that I became convinced he had met each sheep or goat personally. Many smaller things he acquired only to gift to just the right person who would enjoy it.

He was a role model in that he never gave up learning. For a number of years, he knew that life could be snatched from him, and he was determined not to waste a moment of it. His death was a tremendous shock, and his loss to the art world and his diverse groups of friends and colleagues is only now beginning to sink in. But the memory of this complex man lives on, to be cherished and not forgotten.

<p>Ron at the opening of&nbsp;<em>Brian Brake: Lens on the World,&nbsp;</em>Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2011.&nbsp;</p>

Ron at the opening of Brian Brake: Lens on the World, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2011. 

Michael Lett:

When I worked as a gallery assistant at the then-new New Gallery, Ron knew the name of every gallery assistant, guard, and front-of-house clerk in the building. I was only 19 or 20 years old at the time, and his interest in me felt like a genuine elevation. He even knew my parents' names and made a point of saying hello to them if he saw them sitting in the gallery café by themselves.

Ron often requested a helper from the pool of gallery assistants to assist him in his office, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the chosen ones. This usually involved a lot of chat, light filing, or quietly organising his bookcases if he had a writing deadline.

He always encouraged me to take my time and enjoy the day, even suggesting that I peruse any catalogues that caught my attention. Whenever I paused to read, Ron would cock an eye and quiz me on whatever volume I had settled on. Then, with a flourish, he would take out his sharpie and inscribe something along the lines of ‘To M, from R . . .’, insisting that the book was now mine.

I still have a small pile of these personally dedicated publications at home … knowing full well that most of them were actually library books stamped ‘EH McCormick’.

<p>Ron photographed for Pride 2022.&nbsp;</p>

Ron photographed for Pride 2022. 

Max Oettli, photographer:

A row of glass boxes with meeting rooms and a tea corner on the other side . . .  packed in an office bursting with books and bits and pieces there is Ron. On the phone in front of his computer waves me in, obviously deep in a conversation … something about an auction in Adelaide, I think? He takes a paper bag off the little stool and I sit down, avoiding piles of books and folders at my feet. ‘Hi Max, great to see you. Want a biscuit?’ he says, proffering the paper bag. Sure – after a 10-hour flight, a biscuit seems a perfect opener. It’s been a year [since leaving New Zealand] but I feel I’ve never been away. On the other chair are some new clothes for Ron’s beloved dad: smart pyjamas, discreetly patterned socks.

After a while we are downstairs, squatting in the Gallery’s studio, spreading black-and-white photos all over the tables and benches, paper on the floor, a stack of red Agfa boxes near the door. Gloves off. How does Ron tackle the curating process? With expediency and efficiency. He listens to what I tell him, we quite often disagree about selections he makes; little piles are formed, teeter, are shuffled through again. We are looking at the decade from 1965 to 75: time capsules, decisive moments, hesitations, familiar faces with rich hairdos, odd glimpses of epiphany, long, stoned stares, townscapes fixed before they took my Auckland away. If I leave on an errand, I’ll come back to another configuration – new bundles and sub-bundles.

Oh yes, Brownie knows his stuff – he has the infallibility and certitude of a pope. He will listen to arguments and carefully refute them; he is dismissive of my smartarse jokes. He shouts me lunch in the plastic and throwaway neon-lit universe of downtown Auckland.

He was a very private man. I felt that after four years of sporadic work with him I barely knew him. He seems to have known me for four decades or more.

His demise was the last thing we expected, and he will leave a huge gap in all our lives. Rest in peace, Ron.

<p>Ron with Chris Saines (left) and artist Choi Jeong-Hwa (right) at the launch of&nbsp;<em>Flower Chandelier</em>, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2011.&nbsp;</p>

Ron with Chris Saines (left) and artist Choi Jeong-Hwa (right) at the launch of Flower Chandelier, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2011. 

Chris Saines CNZM, Director, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (former director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki):

In looking back, I’ve realised I worked alongside Ron Brownson longer than any other curator during my career. When I arrived at the then Auckland City Art Gallery in 1995, Ron was one of a small group of highly trained and experienced curators who had already forged their reputations as the very best of their generation. It was an immensely formidable team, led by Alexa Johnston, of whom Ron was the last still working at the Gallery all these years later. So, it was not without hesitation that I chaired my first exhibitions planning and acquisitions meetings, surrounded with a hive of cultural and art historical knowledge I was a very long way from accumulating. What I remember most from those early days is Ron’s exactness – his care for and love of language, his understanding of how museums should function, and his abiding respect for artists. It made him an impressive contributor to those discussions, in which I think it was his scholarship and his discerning eye, his diligence and his professional integrity – always leavened by his puckish wit – that have stayed with me most.

Ron was one of the most extraordinarily knowledgeable, collegial and networked curators to have worked in our part of the world. I consider it an honour to have worked with him and well remember that praise from Ron was a small treasure to be cherished. He made an immeasurable contribution to the life and work of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and, even more importantly, gave a platform for young Pasifika artists and curators to take ownership of and pride in their identity. He has left a vast and beautifully woven legacy for those who now proudly stand upon his shoulders.

Kua hinga te tōtara i te wao nui a Tāne.

<p>Ron in front of Colin McCahon,&nbsp;<em>On Building Bridges</em>&nbsp;(detail),1952, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2006</p>

Ron in front of Colin McCahon, On Building Bridges (detail),1952, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2006

Christine Webster, artist:

Ron came to my opening (of the exhibition Divinations) a few days before his death. I remember thinking how wonderfully stylish he looked and how on form he was with everyone there. It was hard afterwards to think that this was the last time.

Ron was involved with my photographic practice in one way or another for 39 years. We first met in 1984, when I had a show at RKS Art. This is when the library visits started. I remember at one time temporarily leaving a huge box of 80s originals in his kind care when my life was more itinerant. He gave me a constant feeling of being supported yet mapped and prodded. He always asked pointed questions and always reflected back with a challenging but constructive critical voice. To have Ron’s attention was a deep compliment – even the tiniest titbit of encouragement from him would lodge in the back brain. I held him in such high esteem. I am humbled by his ongoing energy and interest in my life work.

Ron was very generous and insightful – he took the time to give well considered, carefully worded feedback. At one time he even sourced an image for me from his incredible archive of books, which then became incorporated into a piece of work. In this sense he was actively involved in supporting my practice, always gunning not just for me but for many other artists using photography as a medium.

Ron was known for giving inspirational talks that jolted your senses. There were a number of packed-out talks that I attended at Elam School of Fine Arts in which Ron framed, contextualised, and constructed important new narratives for photography. I particularly remember one called ‘Blood, Tenderly Rearranged’ based on the photographic work of David Wojnarowicz which included passages read aloud from Wojnarowicz's journal.

In more recent times since 1997, we had in common an admiration, respect and love for our fellow artist and friend Douglas Wright (1956–2018), the subject of my exhibition Divinations (2015/2022; exhibition February–April 2023), the opening of which Ron attended. In his usual way, he was there, speaking to various works in his one-liner way. To Cacti Garden: ‘It’s a time-based letter…’; ‘Douglas knew this would be seen after his death …’ To Bed Dance:  ‘… this was his last choreography’. We spoke about the bedroom as a stage or an arena for all the images of Douglas, seemingly bedridden and, Ron said, ‘where it all began’.

The sort of thing that Ron would do was to read the complete works of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Douglas in his last year. He told me how he was still thinking of food treats that he could make for his good friend long after he had passed. As well as all his other attributes, Ron was extraordinarily kind.

Ron was intrinsically involved in my life’s work, and since 2014 we have been working together on a project. We were set to meet the same week he passed away. I am like a ship without an anchor.

I have lost in Ron a force, a support, someone following my work, searching for meaning and links, pivoting and mapping my practice across decades.

I’ve lost a pillar …

The people we’ve been close to and have lost stay inside us, so in some sense he’s still there. The message I get from Ron is: keep going, go further, go deeper and I think this applies to all of us in the arts. 

<p><em>Ron Brownson</em>, circa 1995 by Marti Friedlander. Image courtesy of the Gerard and Marti Friedlander Trust.</p>

Ron Brownson, circa 1995 by Marti Friedlander. Image courtesy of the Gerard and Marti Friedlander Trust.

Dame Robin White, artist:

As someone who is not an Aucklander, my occasional visits to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki had adopted a certain pattern in recent years. I would first of all approach the reception desk and ask if Ron Brownson was available. Enquiries would be made. Ron would appear, greet me warmly and usher me into his office, where tea would be served and I would be brought up to date with the latest goings-on. In the shifting sands of the art world, he was a point of reference, a constant presence, a source of wisdom and kindly advice. This pattern has been rearranged by Ron’s sudden departure and, although I will miss his presence, I shall remember our conversations over a cuppa, and be forever grateful for his encouragement and support.