At the end of Montreal street, past crumbled buildings and among a skyline dotted with cranes on the horizon like poppies in a field, a little message of hope lights up the town.
"Everything is going to be alright." Or so says the rainbow neon sign sprawled across the Christchurch Art Gallery's gray façade.
Like a testimony to the art gallery and city's history, the sentence displays the resilience of a town with years of seismic activity and constant reconstruction.
Through it all, the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu has continued to serve the public and share art.
The Visual Imagination
The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu offers visitors a free opportunity to see local and international art
After the 7.1 magnitude and 6.3 magnitude earthquakes (2010 and 2011, respectively) hit Christchurch, the art gallery served as the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management headquarters and center for earthquake recovery. While the 6,500 pieces of art remained in the building and rescue volunteers swarmed its halls, the gallery organized events around the city to continue sharing art. Jackson recalled how they hung pieces in any available space, projected videos on damaged buildings and attached work on the windows of an abandoned house.
"[Art] is all about being curious and asking yourself lots of questions. It's also about letting go a little and just thinking about what's going on in front of you. Everyone will walk away from a work of art with different ideas and thoughts."
In a day, Strongman may interview a new artist for a show, sit down with a designer to pour over a new layout or create labels for the pieces. Exhibits may feature a single artist or represent a theme showcasing different artists.
"Christchurch Art Gallery has a very strong sense of its mission and its catalytic role as the city rebuilds," Strongman said. "Our collections reflect the history of the region and its specific historical connections to other parts of the world."
Strongman said the gallery is Christchurch's "visual imagination." People can expect a variety of experiences, she said, from being intellectually stimulated by new art to revisiting old pieces like old friends. In the end, their mission is to highlight creativity.
"The gallery is a catalyst for the generation of new ideas," Strongman said. "Art enables you to see the world a little differently, through the eyes of an artist—and the ability to imagine what doesn’t yet exist can change the world.
If you’re looking for a place to avoid inclement weather, use free WiFi or entertain your kids, the Christchurch Art Gallery offers these things on top of modern art displays.
"We’re Christchurch’s treasury of art, a storehouse of unique images, memories and ideas," Blair Jackson, deputy director of the gallery, said. "We're here to connect people with art, ideas about art and with artists."
The current public gallery opened in 2003, replacing the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, which opened in 1932. The new building offers more space and has been retrofitted with a base-isolation system, allowing the building to move on its foundations during seismic activity. Due to the building's structure and the care taken in mounting exhibits, Jackson said few pieces are damaged beyond repair when an earthquake hits Christchurch.
"[Art] is all about being curious and asking yourself lots of questions," Jackson said. "It's also about letting go a little and just thinking about what's going on in front of you. Everyone will walk away from a work of art with different ideas and thoughts."
The gallery is free to visit and showcases New Zealand artists, specifically those from the surrounding Canterbury area, alongside those from other parts of the world. Its walls can hold as many as 20 different exhibitions in a year.
"Hopefully, people leave with their minds buzzing and imaginations sparked," Jackson said. "I like to think we've given them something to think about, something to challenge themselves, or something to love or even hate."
In order to create this space, senior curator Lara Strongman said the smallest tweaks make a difference.
"Public galleries are complex ecosystems," Strongman said. "Curators are always thinking about how the relationship between individual works might tell a bigger story."