Title: Somebody Say Something

Author: Gregory O'Brien

In: Sport 23: Spring 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1999

Part of: Sport

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Sport 23: Spring 1999

‘McCahon's gift is still with us. We have just changed the nature of that gift.’

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‘McCahon's gift is still with us. We have just changed the nature of that gift.’

Given the obviousness of Storm Warning's message and the ease with which details surrounding the gift could have been gathered from people who were close to McCahon at the time, the fact that the head of the Art History Department went on national television and said she thought the sale was in the spirit of McCahon's gift underlines the implausibility and sheer outrageousness of this chain of events.

Within the university itself, opposition to the sale came, in particular, from the Departments of English, Music and Religious Studies. Many staff members felt the painting didn't entirely belong to ‘Art History’. The literary element in McCahon's painting certainly places it, at least partially, within the domain of the English Department. McCahon is inarguably an important presence in New Zealand literary history—his association with writers such as Caselberg, Hooper and Baxter has been explored in two recent exhibitions.11 The artist wrote: ‘I suppose writing is above painting. The beauty of words grab me. I love words—you get “told” by words.’ I've already mentioned McCahon's relevance to the field of religious studies. His relevance to the music and dramatic arts of this country is unequalled by any other visual artist, with the possible exception of Ralph Hotere.

Maori members of staff had every reason to question the authenticity of the university's supposed bi-culturalism after the powers-that-be felt no compunction about secretly despatching a work of this nature—a gift from an individual to a Maori as well as a Pakeha community—without taking it through the appropriate Maori channels. (Ironically, a week or two after the sale was announced, Jenny Harper was publicly criticising the Museum of New Zealand for its 1993 restructuring which, she said, was done with ‘minimal internal consultation and no public debate’.) It was even suggested, in at least one quarter, that Storm Warning might well inspire the kind of committed re-claiming that the Urewera Mural met with in 1997 (which would explain the decision to hang the work on hooks six page 30 metres high in the Adam Art Gallery, when it was returned temporarily to the university for the opening exhibition.)

The actual process by which the painting was sold has alarmed a large sector of the university community. The University Council's resolution, passed early in 1998, was that the possibility of selling a work from the collection could be looked into if funds had not been raised by 31 December 1998. Selling valuations for Storm Warning and three other McCahons were being sought in October of that year. Two independent legal opinions have described this as an unauthorised act. And still the university simply refuses to admit the sale was a mistake. An official statement in the parish pump VicNews was jaw-dropping in its illogicality: Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Irving said that the sale did not breach McCahon's wishes because the new owners had agreed that the painting will be made available for public exhibition from time to time.

Whether the institution admits it or not, the sale has led to a collapse in confidence on the part of donors and friends of the gallery and university. The Turnovsky Trust has written to the university concerning the ‘gift’ status of a number of grand pianos donated to the Music Department. A series of 32 photographs originally intended as a gift to the University has now been gifted to a specific department of the university on the condition it does not become part of the University Art Collection. It will take the university a long time to regain the goodwill and trust of countless artists, collectors and others. The whole business reads not only like a fulfilled prophecy (McCahon's pessimism confirmed) but also like some grim parable of the unstoppable, unmeasured opportunism of New Right economics.

Richard Killeen, discussing the sale recently, went on to draw the gloomy conclusion that in the restructuring of welfare and education in particular, Pakeha New Zealand was showing its true colours. In short, the country had been colonised by a band of gold-diggers and the period of the welfare state was but a brief aberration before we returned to being who we really were all along: a nation of gold-diggers.

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In the end, you could be forgiven for thinking that McCahon's Storm Warning—with its expressed sentiment—was exactly the kind of painting a university in the present monetarist era didn't want around.

‘In this present time it is very difficult to paint for other people—to paint beyond your own ends and point directions as painters once did,’ Colin McCahon wrote in 1972. ‘Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on walls at exhibitions.’ This statement reads like an uncannily accurate description of Storm Warning's progression from being a community-owned icon on permanent display to being an artwork temporarily on loan to a gallery from a private collection.

Gordon H. Brown, McCahon's biographer, said recently that more and more in his latter years the artist divided the people around him into two factions: the ‘believers’ and the ‘betrayers’. The Storm Warning debacle was one occasion, Brown surmised, when the ‘betrayers’ had had their way.

Black and white image of an artwork