Don’t Let It Get You
1500 x 1000 mm
Courtesy of the artist and Bartley & Company Art, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington
Estimate: NZD 7,500 — 10,000
Mary-Louise Browne uses words as found objects, redeploying existing texts to upend cliché and make us look again at sayings we thought we knew well.
The advice this neon imparts is a helpful guide to everyday life, especially in these Covid times, however it is in fact the title of an iconic New Zealand film from 1966 by John O’Shea, a romp of a musical starring a young Howard Morrison and Kiri Te Kanawa at a Rotorua pop and shearing festival. One of only two feature films made in New Zealand in the 1960s, Don’t Let It Get You bursts with optimism in the face of artistic difficulty. Similarly, this neon depicts language as a tool that shapes power dynamics.
Artist Biography & History
with Artspace Aotearoa:
Mary-Louise Browne was the inaugural Director of Artspace, a position that she shaped and held between 1986 — 1989. Her vision and efforts were fundamental to the conception of our organisation. The programme that was delivered under her leadership established the mandate that Artspace Aotearoa continues to strive towards: to advocate for innovation and increased opportunities within the field of contemporary art in Aotearoa. Mary-Louise has been a generous supporter of Artspace Aotearoa over the last 34 years, contributing in multifarious ways across numerous projects.
Mary-Louise Browne works with wit to explore the metaphoric, material and visual qualities of language, with her conceptual purposes dictating her selection of medium. Her work contains a commentary on contemporary life, culture and politics.
Browne graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in 1982. Since then she has exhibited widely throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas, is represented in both public and private collections, and has produced several major public art commissions including the monumental stone staircase Body to Soul (1996) in Wellington’s Botanical Gardens, and the granite bench work Byword (2007) which runs the length of Lorne Street, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.
The Beginning by Mary-Louise Browne, 2021
Artspace was a response to the lack of opportunities for artists working in non-traditional fields in Auckland in the mid-1980s. Dealer galleries were appearing, but there was a distinct feeling that their doors weren’t open to artists working in installation, performance, moving image or photography. However democratic, those areas were considered non-commercial and therefore problematic. Local artists, increasingly in touch with global changes, wanted a formative role in rebuilding a conservative cultural framework and developing alternative strategies for production, display and dissemination.
At the same time, the urban property market was in the doldrums and raw, affordable space was widely available. Studios and rehearsal rooms were pepper-potted around the back streets of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Earlier in the decade the same oversupply created opportunities for artist-run spaces and projects like 100m2, F1 Projects and The Women’s Gallery.
The first alternative spaces explored provisional strategies for new ways to make and show new work. These were non legitimated art spaces, industrial or commercial sites, being used in contradiction of their normal function. They became provisional galleries by definition once artists occupied them and declared their art function. They could be seen as a deliberate challenge to the New Zealand art establishment and hierarchy of the time. All of them, however, had relatively short lives and were gone by 1985.
Another outcome of the stagnant economy was high unemployment and the creation of government make-work schemes like the Project Employment Programme (PEP). Local councils were given a mandate to create short-term projects for the unemployed. Auckland City Council Arts and Culture Manager Sandi Morrison saw the possibilities in the PEP regime and facilitated the creation of Artwork - a project clearing-house for artists on the dole to work in the community. From 1982 to 1986 Artwork flourished, funded by the Department of Labour and housed by the Council to create employment opportunities for scores of artists, but the economy picked up, economic orthodoxy shifted and the PEP programmes inevitably came to an end.
The loss of such work schemes was hard on Auckland artists, but it created an opportunity for evolution. Morrison, along with myself in the role of Artwork Manager of Visual Arts, Trust lawyer Simon Blackwell, accountant William Somerville and writer and critic Wystan Curnow, set about splicing together the two models - the alternative space and the community organisation. The Arts Council, conscious that it had not responded well to earlier initiatives, provided vital funding and credibility. A ground-breaking constitution was drawn up mandating the involvement of artists the governance. Even the name and logo design and brand drew on the legacy. Artwork became Artspace.
Ironically, the new organisation benefited from a fresh oversupply of unwanted commercial property. Artspace first negotiated free use of 101 Federal St (now somewhere under Sky City) from Auckland Council until the site was sold for development; The George Fraser Gallery in Albert Park, assigned from the Auckland Art Gallery; and 6 - 8 Quay St (now inside Britomart), from Pace Corporation until they could develop the site. All on a tiny operating and installation budget.
The early programme was ambitious, two galleries and two exhibition programmes with one sole charge director. 101 Federal Street featured installation and performance work by such non-establishment artists as Phil Dadson and Terrence Handscomb. The George Fraser Gallery launched a little later. Janet Frame was pacing about upstairs and visiting downstairs daily as the inaugural Frank Sargeson Fellow when Fiona Pardington and Di French opened their photographic exhibition which addressed themes of transgression, the female gaze and the body. While the concept of an artist focused exhibition space was still unfamiliar in 1980s Auckland, Artspace had almost immediately become an essential component of the contemporary art scene, just as it is today.