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Collection pulled

Frustrated benefactor withdraws support for Tairāwhiti museum

Tairāwhiti Museum lost its major benefactor earlier this year when Wellington-based arts philanthropist Professor Jack Richards withdrew his support and collection from the Jack C Richards Gallery.

The parting of the ways ended a more-than 20-year relationship between Professor Richards and the museum.

The break-up is polite but the parties differ in their version of the circumstances leading up to Professor Richards' decision.

Staff were disappointed about the withdrawal of support as the museum had always kept the lines of communication open and their actions transparent, museum director Eloise Wallace said,

Over the past few years, Professor Richards became increasingly unhappy with how he perceived his collection was being managed at the museum.

He continues to be a supporter of the arts in Tairāwhiti and elsewhere but says communication by the museum was poor, and he became increasingly frustrated with how he was being treated.

Ms Wallace, however, said she and Professor Richards were in frequent, friendly contact and he was regularly consulted about his collections and displays.

Museum staff were also in regular contact with his staff.

“I can't overstate Professor Richards' importance in supporting the museum,” she said. “The celebration of his impact remains both in the name of the Jack C Richards Gallery and in the pieces he has gifted to the collection over the years.”

Professor Richards was unhappy at how some of his pieces had been displayed.

“My opinion was not sought about the way they were doing things,” he said. “We had a clear difference of taste. The gallery was intended to reflect my artistic taste and judgement, rather than that of others.”

But the museum denies a failure of communication or curation.

Ms Wallace said staff were highly skilled and trained and made well-informed curatorial, design, interpretation and display decisions.

“Our curators have a thorough understanding of working with collections — including relevant ethical and legislative requirements — and both board and management support in carrying out that work in a dynamic and ever-changing environment.”

The Richards Collection consists of over 1000 items, including vases, textiles, ceramics, French glass, Chinese porcelain, robes, garments, antique books including Cook journals, of which the museum has its own copies, paintings and prints.

Professor Richards referred to “Mickey Mouse pieces from who knows where” going into the same cabinets as his pieces.

“They detracted from the visual impact that I have in mind when I purchase things,” he said. “Things were being done carelessly and destroyed the whole intention I had.”

But Ms Wallace said Professor Richards had enthusiastically agreed that other items could be displayed with his collection — and in the same cabinets — and referred to the good faith in which the museum had worked with him.

“We've enjoyed a friendly, warm relationship over many years and were making a plan for the future and the continuity of a strong partnership”.

The relationship with Professor Richards had been important to the museum because of the public benefit that resulted from it — not something any museum would ever give up lightly.

“He's very well regarded and he's been a treasure of the community. It's almost impossible to list all of his contributions.

“He made a decision to sell his personal collection, as he had every right to do, and we would never have stood in his way.”

The museum's position on the sale of the collection is that in October last year Ms Wallace and museum chairman Michael Muir met with Professor Richards to update the 2011 agreement for the gallery.

But by November Professor Richards informed the museum he had decided to sell his collection and requested all items be returned to him by February this year.

Professor Richards says he became frustrated with museum curation and decided to sell the collection only after he withdrew it. What the museum had done was “a sort of dumbing down”.

Ms Wallace rejects that notion.

“Museum staff are committed to and passionate about making professional decisions that enrich and educate both their community and visitors from further afield,” she said.

“That the relationship with Jack is not continuing as it did is something many institutions face in balancing the sometimes differing requirements of private investment and public good.

”But overall we have acted with the best intent in attempting to align the ambitions of one of our most valued benefactors with the standards of professionalism we are obligated to reach.

Ms Wallace says the new focus for the Jack C Richards Gallery will be on displaying more of the museum's collections.

“That includes items Jack has himself has gifted to the museum, as well as art, artefacts and taonga gifted by those from across our community who have generously made donations, gifts and bequests over the years.”

The falling out has no doubt made waves in the arts community and possibly among other arts philanthropists.

It has put a spotlight on the at times uneasy relationship between benefactors and institutions, and might have some benefactors and administrators scrambling to re-read their contracts.

extension opening: Jack Richards is pictured with then-East coast MP Anne Tolley at the launch of an extension to Tairawhiti Museum in 2014. Mr Richards has withdrawn his support for the museum.File picture
DISAPPOINTed: Museum director Eloise Wallace says staff were disappointed about Professor Richards' withdrawal of support and that he was regularly consulted about what was displayed in the gallery. File picture
‘MICKEY MOUSE PIECES': Drink coasters were among the items displayed in the Jack C Richards Gallery. Professor Richards became increasingly annoyed with what he saw as the museum's choice of 'Mickey Mouse pieces' for the gallery. Picture supplied