The Reorientation of Objectspace: In Conversation with Kim Paton
Written by Lana Lopesi
At the end of July Objectspace reopened their gallery doors to the public, with a new space, a reenergised mandate and a declaration to be Aotearoa’s leading gallery dedicated to the fields of design, craft and architecture. This marks an exciting turn for the design community, an institution dedicated to enriching the landscape we all work within. In light of this I caught up with Kim Paton, Objectspace’s director responsible for gallery’s new direction and asked her what this all really means.
Lana Lopesi: First of congratulations on the new site! This feels really big, not just physically but for the art, design and craft communities, it feels like a win in many respects. The new space is much more than just a space though, it’s a whole rebranding and repositioning of Objectspace isn’t it? What was the driver behind all of this?
Kim Paton: Thanks! It’s been a very strange feeling this last two weeks to reorientate ourselves back to an open gallery, and in the process of getting used to the new building it’s a daily reminder of some pretty big distances we’ve travelled as an organisation over the last nine months.
For sure, the shifts for the organisation are greater than the physical building. Without doubt we wanted a space that we could truly call our own and that would afford us the opportunity to be much more flexible and ambitious with our programming. But it was also about asserting a position for the organisation, to imagine a big and aspirational leap for Objectspace, but one that could be achieved relatively quickly and allow us to still maintain a nimbleness and independence.
The move was catalysed by an increase in our core funding from Creative New Zealand, the additional funding acknowledges that while we’re in a relatively good position in Aotearoa in terms of venues for contemporary art and the performing arts the same can’t be said about craft and design. If we consider the number of applied arts or design focused exhibitions programmed in main public galleries nationally, or how often we encounter engaged critical writing about craft or design, the argument can be made that we don’t value or understand work from these domains in the way that we do other art forms. The additional funding from CNZ is to create programmes of work that help strengthen the role of craft and design, both in terms of how audiences and publics engage with it and understand it, and opportunities available to practitioners. (It’s worth mentioning that none of our CNZ funding went to the capital project – which was all fundraised independently by Objectspace.)
It’s been interesting to watch conversations unfold about the rebranding or expansion of our programme focus to include design and architecture. Design has always been a key discipline focus in Objectspace’s programme remit, and architecture has been encompassed within that. In many conversations I’ve had with makers that formed the founding group of Objectspace, they describe the commitment and interest there was in seeing the programme pay serious attention to design and architecture back when the organisation was founded in 2003. I think that over the years the programme organically orientated itself towards craft.
In this move we’re saying – our commitment to craft and to makers remains unfaltering but alongside that we want to demonstrate the same dedication and focus to design based disciplines. And in doing so, we can create a public gallery that speaks to more audiences, that draws together important points of connection that exist between making practices, and creates a stronger community for practitioners and visitors.
LL: Objectspace was always set up to fill a gap in many respects, and now it seems as though you’ve identified more gaps. I’m interested to know what exactly you think the gaps are and why has the vision expanded to design and architecture?
KP: I wonder if craft will ever shake off the baggage as being considered the ‘other’ to the main event. I’ve never encountered a practice base so diverse and expansive as I have through Objectspace, and in so many respects the scale of audiences and practitioners that are engaged in its associated discipline areas is absolutely massive. But it’s like what I said previously that I think we lack a recognisable exhibition language and critical language for design (and to a lesser degree craft) and that means these disciplines are often voided from conversations around culture and art form.
Like with what I described earlier the expanded vision feels very natural in terms of the lineage of Objectspace, it’s always been in the heart of the organisation but with more space and more resources comes our opportunity to put a stake firmly in the ground regarding our commitment to this group of disciplines (craft, design and architecture).
In my mind there is a democracy that is shared within these discipline areas, they represent making practices that aren’t rarefied, they exist around us, and we participate in them. To more clearly express a commitment to design and architecture alongside craft, gives us a chance to participate in communicating these ideas and to place a shared value on work and practice that occurs within these domains.
LL: What does this mean for the design community?
KP: Pragamatically it means exhibitions, publishing and public programmes dedicated to design, and about a third of our programme will have this focus. It means accounting for work done by designers and arguing for its value and significance to our material culture. It also means finding the right space and opportunities to create connections across different making practices.
We want designers to take ownership of the space, and for the community that surrounds the gallery to strengthen and grow larger.
LL: This idea of a space where the “best practice and thinking in design, craft and architecture can be experienced and engaged with” is really exciting! What is the best practice and thinking? Where are we at now?
KP: There is no one answer to that question right? Best practice to me is open, inquiring, conversational and always in a state of change. Nothing is more important to me than great exhibition making, but different things are prioritised with different projects, sometimes we’re seeking to take risks and test strange and unknown ideas out and sometimes we are taking stock of work that needs to be accounted for. The final two shows at Objectspace in our old venue sum it up for me, we went from graphic designer Johnson Witehira’s Half-Blood exhibition where audiences could play a 1980s style video game that moves satirically through the period of colonisation of New Zealand playing on assumptions and stereotypes around the period of the signing of the treaty, to a survey exhibition of Susan Holmes, a textiles artist most known for her work with fabric printing in the 1970s. Some might find that to be pretty jarring but I love that about Objectspace, and I think we’re not doing our job if our programme stylistically feels the same.
Regarding the idea of best practice, only time will tell what we come to think of as ‘best practice’, what is most enduring or influential, but I think that ‘best’ embodies the idea that thinking and practice seeks to understand the histories and context it is embedded in, and then sets its own course truthfully. I guess I always return to that sense of encountering an individual who is committed and compelled to see an idea through. And that we as an organisation without reservation find ways to be open to a diversity of practice, and that we do our very best to support and resource practitioners well so that projects are developed to their full potential. And one important central tenet of our new home and expanded focus is that we find ourselves better resourced, with more space to do more things and we ourselves are compelled to make the absolute most of the opportunity that comes with it for makers, designers and architects.