Max Rashbrooke meets Robert Leonard, senior curator, City Gallery Photography by Justine Hall

Life in counterpoint

Chief Curator of City Gallery Robert LeonardI like art,” Robert Leonard says, “that plays coun­ter­point with me.” Partly this is the love of con­trasts, of hav­ing two melod­ic lines that play at once, but fit togeth­er: “I want to put things into dia­logue. I like it when works argue with one anoth­er or jostle for pos­i­tion.” Partly it’s an open­ness to new impacts, an appre­ci­ation of things you thought you could nev­er love.

Some­times, I bond more strongly with art that I star­ted off by hat­ing,” says Leonard, newly installed as the City Gallery’s seni­or cur­at­or. Not every­one in the art world, or else­where for that mat­ter, is so open to influ­ence. But Leonard thrives on the grapple, the con­front­a­tion with the dis­liked object. He doesn’t mind start­ing off on the back foot. Take, for instance, the Amer­ic­an artist Mat­thew Barney, whose highly exper­i­ment­al body of work spans sculp­ture, opera and film­mak­ing. “In many ways, his work is everything I thought I didn’t like: it’s the­at­ric­al, it’s pre­ten­tious, it’s silly. But I love it des­pite myself. It won me over. It defeated every cri­ti­cism I threw at it.”

Leonard grew up in Auck­land, came down to Wel­ling­ton as an intern at the Nation­al Art Gal­lery on Buckle Street, and since then has worked in New Ply­mouth, Duned­in and Bris­bane, where he was the dir­ect­or of the city’s Insti­tute of Mod­ern Art. That kind of con­tem­por­ary arts space is where “a lot of the art world’s heavy lift­ing is done”, the real test­ing of edges and break­ing of bound­ar­ies, the fur­thest advanced part of the avant-garde.

But the audi­ences in these spaces are, in Leonard’s own words, “tiny”. And so he star­ted search­ing for a big­ger can­vas. “I came to work at City Gal­lery because I want to work some­where with a real audi­ence again, as well as poten­tial for impact.” Cur­at­ing, in this sense, is no rar­efied activ­ity; it is the con­struc­tion of a bridge between pro­du­cers and con­sumers, where the need to get those con­sumers, the pub­lic, across the bridge and into the gal­lery is as import­ant as any­thing else. “You work with artists, but you also work with audi­ences. It’s party liaison.”

Leonard has come back with a desire to “cur­ate up a storm”. But at the same time he’d like to shake the repu­ta­tion he gained here as a young man in the 1980s, where some inspired cur­at­ing — includ­ing a show that jux­ta­posed Colin McCahon with nation­al­ist TV ads — gave him that dreaded label, an enfant ter­rible. “When I was in my 20s,” he says, “I used to get called an ‘enfant ter­rible’, but I’m 51 now, a seni­or cit­izen of the art world. I’m ven­er­able. But, now I’m back in Wel­ling­ton, I’m bump­ing into people who knew me back then and still think of me as an ‘enfant ter­rible’. It’s a mantle I want to shake off.”

Some­thing he rel­ishes as a cur­at­or is the free­dom to move from genre to genre, from style to style. The art world has its dom­in­ant trends, of course; but how quickly that shifts. “As a cur­at­or, you can be all over some­thing, then drop it and go in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion. Artists have to remain con­sist­ent, but cur­at­ors can be fickle. The fickle­ness of the art world works for cur­at­ors.” But don’t the artists, like jilted lov­ers, feel hurt? “Def­in­itely, def­in­itely.” But Leonard has worked with some artists for long stretches, oth­ers briefly; it’s the nature of the job.

In a way, it comes back to con­trast — “all things counter, ori­gin­al, spare, strange”, as the poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins put it. It works in art, and in life, too. Often our ideal lov­er is someone with sens­ib­il­ity that is dif­fer­ent to our own but still meshes with it. “The last per­son you want to have a rela­tion­ship with,” Leonard says, “is yourself.”

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