The parliamentary art collection

Claire Trevett at NZ Herald reports:

The Parliamentary Art Collection, value $12 million, includes an artwork in shagpile that can only be described as a piece of its time.

That time is 1981 – the year of the underarm bowling scandal, the Springbok Tour, and the first hints of the trend that shoulder pads and big hair will become. The piece, Variation in Apricot, is considered ‘textile art’. It reportedly feels like touching a dirty dog.

Arts Minister Chris Finlayson’s immediate reaction is sotto voce: “S***, that’s awful.”

Then he gets closer and sees the plaque that says it was donated by the National Party caucus wives in 1981 – when Robert Muldoon was the Prime Minister.

“Oh my God,” he says, shamefaced at slighting the taste of such a group of women. He slams into reverse and hunts for a more diplomatic adjective than ‘awful.’

“It certainly is a unique contribution to the art collection in Parliament.

Heh, too late.

Mr Finlayson has managed to find a spare 45 minutes between signing Treaty of Waitangi claim settlements – as Treaty Negotiations Minister – to take the Herald on a grand tour of the parliamentary collection.

There are more than 3000 pieces, including the big names: Grahame Sydney landscapes, four Colin McCahons, Len Castle, Ralph Hotere, Philip Trusttum, Brent Wong, Stanley Palmer, Frances Hodgkins, Dick Frizzell, and several by the ubiquitous Unknown Artist.

Mr Finlayson is not one to be seduced by the power of a name, however.

He is an honest, if brutal, critic, designating most pieces to the categories of either “boring” or “bleak”.

Honest, and brutal – that’s the Chris we know and love.

Prime Minister John Key’s favourite piece is Colin McCahon’s Koru. Mr Finlayson is kind about Koru, but possibly only because it is in the Speaker’s Lounge and the Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith, is there when we drop in.

Mr Finlayson manages to muster up something about the admirable “texture” of the piece, which Dr Smith informs him is worth about $300,000.

But the Speaker was not there just five minutes earlier when Mr Finlayson trotted past two other McCahons – A Piece of Muriwai Canvas and Necessary Protection I – glanced up and sighed. “He’s a strange one, isn’t he? I just find it all a bit … bleak.”

I have to confess, that I once made a rather serious error with a McCahon at Parliament. It was around 2001 or 2002 and I was on the parliamentary ball committee and one of my jobs was to put up posters promoting the ball. I was in a bit of a hurry and having one of those days where I wasn’t concentrating much and pinned one of the posters onto a noticeboard on the 3rd floor of Parliament House, in the Opposition Leader’s corridor.

Except it wasn’t a noticeboard. It was a Colin McCahon painting that was worth around $300,000. I can’t recall which one it was (maybe A Piece of Muriwai Canvas) but there was a very anguished yell when someone discovered my mistake and I quickly removed the poster hoping no one else would notice the thumb tack marks in it. In my defence it really did look a bit like a notice board!