Emerging curator and art historian, and Tauranga Art Gallery regular, Ellie Smith dives into the details of a typical day working with the visual arts, and why (in the time of Covid) she’s no longer planning anything with certainty…
Your occupation, job title, artistic discipline (or very brief description of what you do):
I am currently working towards my Master of Arts in Museum Studies through Massey University. Whilst I’m studying, I also help out at Tauranga Art Gallery with registrar and funding tasks. Recently, I’ve had some freelance writing work, which has been a new but really rewarding experience.
What cities/towns have you lived in (or spent more than a few months in) beginning with the place of your birth?
I was born in Winchester, Hampshire in the UK. It’s a beautiful, small Cathedral city in the south of England. I lived there until I was about 10, then my family and I emigrated to New Zealand. We started off in Matamata for two years, which was a culture shock to say the least! We then moved over to Tauranga. I went to intermediate and high school here before moving to Auckland to study my Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Classical Studies. During my second year of University, I lived and worked in Venice, Italy for a few months working as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. After graduating with my BA at the end of 2018, I moved back to Tauranga to undertake a role at the Tauranga Art Gallery.
What are the earliest stories you remember hearing? The ones that told you about the world?
I’ve always had a real thirst for history, even as a child. It’s been my favourite subject all throughout my schooling. The British curriculum has quite a wide focus on world history, even at primary school. I vividly remember learning about the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Romans from around the age of seven—and I think we may have even had a toga dress up day once! Perhaps that’s what sparked my interest in the classical world, something which I continued studying throughout my undergraduate degree.
What’s your favourite Bay of Plenty landscape, park, building, location, suburb, or side street? Why?
That would probably have to be Omokoroa. It’s a stunning little bay with a beautiful reserve, you have to walk up a bit of a hill to get to the reserve but there are beautiful gardens and views of the sea. I think it encompasses all the beauty of the Bay of Plenty without the crowds you sometimes get at the Mount. I love Nourish cafe in Te Puna—on the way out to Omokoroa as well. They serve a brilliant coffee!
What’s an average day in your life at present?
An average day doesn’t really exist in my life at the moment! Normally after I’ve woken up, had a coffee, etc, I crack on with my studying—which is different each week. It may be heading into a gallery and writing an exhibition review, reading up on museum governance internationally, preparing a bibliography or writing a funding report. It’s a busy course, more intense than I thought it would be—but it also has a lot of practical elements that are really relevant to the sector at the moment.
Some mornings I’ll head into Tauranga Art Gallery to work on projects with their team, or otherwise I study for the day (contrary to popular opinion, it is like a full-time job!). I’ve also had some freelance writing and project work fill some of my time recently. I’ve never considered myself much of a writer, so this has been a wonderful opportunity to find my voice. My most recent project has been City Art Walk, a new initiative in the Tauranga CBD which comprises a free-to-download mobile app that takes visitors and locals on a tour of 20 of the city’s public artworks. I acted as the project assistant and lead writer on City Art Walk, developed by Supercut Projects and loved getting to know more about our city’s public art. It covers sites I see everyday but knew hardly anything about.
For you as a creative person, who are three influential artists or thinkers?
Peggy Guggenheim—it seems like a cliched answer considering I worked at her gallery in Venice, but one of the greatest experiences of that internship was finding out more about her incredible life. There’s a bit of a perception about Peggy in the art world that she was a bit tight, a bit of a lush and relied too much on the men around her—and didn’t champion female artists as much as a female collector should. She was a colourful character no doubt, but also an incredibly savvy businesswoman with an amazing eye for art. A generous philanthropist, she was Jackson Pollock’s greatest patron and a brilliant advocate for female artists. In my opinion she’s one of the first successful female collectors and gallerists, and her work really gave women in the field credibility.
Elizabeth Gilbert—there’s a reason why Eat Pray Love has sold over 12 million copies and got made into a film with Julia Roberts. Gilbert writes with such joy and a zest for life. No matter what’s going on in my life, her writing always brings about a sense of calm.
Alberto Giacometti—one of my favourite artists and one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th Century. His approach to form was revolutionary, and I’ve always been fascinated by his story. He was invited to join the famous Surrealist group led by Andre Breton but was eventually kicked out because Breton didn’t think his works were surreal enough. But after he left Giacometti developed the style he is most known for and really came into his own as an artist. He’s never really fitted into an artistic movement or niche, and I think that’s really wonderful.
If you went away from the Bay of Plenty for a long time and then came back, what are the first three things you would do or visit?
I would see what exhibitions are new at Tauranga Art Gallery first. One of the beauties of the gallery is that with their five exhibition spaces, there’s always something new to see. I’d also check out what’s on at Baycourt Theatre as well. And I would have to make a visit to Omokoroa (mentioned above) to reconnect with the landscape. Then I’d also go for a walk along Pilot Bay and grab a coffee and cake at Spongedrop Cakery.
What are you planning for 2021 that nobody knows about yet?
I think if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I really need to stop planning. As we all know, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year. I had many grand plans, all of which have gone down the pan. All I know at least is that I will still be trucking away (and finishing, fingers crossed!) my Masters degree. At the moment I’m happy studying and open to freelancing with projects that come my way. This is very unlike me, I normally plan everything to a T. Having everything up in the air is normally a source of anxiety for me, but I think this year I have learnt that life will do its thing, whether I like it or not, and you have to make the best out of it.
In one sentence, can you define art?
No, absolutely not. That’s impossible, I’m afraid. Next question! In all seriousness, I think art is too important and too wide-reaching to whittle down to one sentence.
What is missing or lacking from your Bay of Plenty community or environment?
I would really love to see a museum in Tauranga one day. It’s not the most pressing issue the city faces, and perhaps we’re not in a financial position at the moment for it to be viable. However, as someone who wants to spend their working life in the sector, I’d like to think that I know the value of these spaces for a community. Tauranga Art Gallery is consistently considered one of New Zealand’s best regional galleries. Tauranga is filled with public and street art by internationally recognised artists. The Elms is an important regional treasure. However, we have an entire collection of taonga and treasures that most people in the region know nothing about, just sitting there waiting to be learnt about. It is cared for by the incredibly competent and diligent team at the Tauranga Heritage Collection who do an amazing job of showcasing it in the best way possible without a museum. As the city and region continues to grow and expand in population, it is so important that we have a place to learn about what came before.
Name a few films that you consider profound, moving or extraordinary?
Cinema Paradiso is one of my all time favourites. It’s a beautiful story about the power of art (and film), all set against a quaint Italian backdrop and to the most beautiful soundtrack by the maestro, Ennio Morricone.
Roman Holiday introduced me to the golden age of Hollywood. The first film I ever watched of Audrey Hepburn’s and she is just as captivating as the hype suggests. Another Italian setting (you’ll notice a theme here), gorgeous costumes and made all the better knowing that Gregory Peck gave up his top-billing spot because he knew Hepburn was the real star. He’s marvellous as well though.
There will be someone that will scoff at this, but I would list The Terminal. I will watch ANYTHING if it has Tom Hanks and Stanley Tucci in it, but both of them in one film is too much. Is it particularly profound? A cinematic masterpiece? No. Does it make me happy? Yes. An easy-watching, well-acted, couple of hours of escapism.
What was your first real job, second, third?
My first job was at Baycourt. I worked as a casual in the Box Office during high school and have had quite a long connection with Baycourt. My mum started working there in 2011 (and is still there) and I first took the stage at Baycourt in 2009—a one line part in Tauranga Intermediate School’s Production! It’s been like a second home to me for a long time, I love it there.
I had a couple of jobs throughout university, I worked for Auckland Theatre Company in the box office again (that was awesome, I was part of the first intake of staff in their new theatre in Wynyard Quarter). I got to see most of the shows, which for a struggling student was really wonderful. And I was a tutor in the humanities and social sciences through MyTuition. My first real job (i.e. not a casual or an intern!) was as the Events and Projects Coordinator at Tauranga Art Gallery.
Where would you like to live, but have yet to?
That would probably be London. I have quite a bit of family in the East End, that’s where my mum was born, so we’ve visited a lot both when we lived there and when we’ve gone back to visit on holiday. I am definitely a city girl, I loved living in Auckland. I know it’s not for everybody but I love the energy of cities and that there’s always something to do. London has a lot of problems for sure, but I think I would thrive with the arts and culture scene there—the West End, the galleries and museums would keep me happy.
What word of advice would you offer an aspiring creative person?
Introduce yourself, genuinely just say hello to people in the field. Suss out who works in the region you want to live, or kind of job you want and just reach out. Everyone in the creative field knows how hard it can be sometimes to break into the various industries; whether it’s being an actor, a writer or a musician, an aspiring curator or theatre director, it isn’t easy. I’ve always found that people have been really open to letting me know how they got to where they are and giving advice on where I should go/what I should do next. Networking is really important, and not as scary as it sounds.