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Thursday, April 7, 2011

From gallery to command centre

Art of emergency

From gallery to command centre

Last updated 11:33 08/04/2011

CHARLIE GATES discovers how the Christchurch Art Gallery became the Emergency Operations Centre.

It is the most prestigious gallery space in Christchurch, but there is no art on the walls.

Coloured maps, notices and lists are instead roughly gaffer taped to the walls where masterpieces once hung.

The gallery space is filled with nearly one hundred people working at laptops on fold out tables. Cardboard boxes, hardhats and clipboards lay strewn across the desks.

It is a strange sight to see the Christchurch Art Gallery bereft of art and filled with the urgent activity of an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).

Gallery director Jenny Harper stands amid the buzz in one of her galleries.

"Look at it. Look at it. It is a completely other operation. It is phenomenal,'' she says.

The transformation of the gallery into the nerve centre for the emergency response began just 20 minutes after the February earthquake.

The changeover would involve gallery staff facing down the army, Civil Defence teams working next to New Zealand masterworks and Richie McCaw getting his own display case.

The gallery was at the heart of the emergency response to the quake. Emergency services, the army and Civil Defence used the building to coordinate rescue efforts, demolitions and host press conferences twice a day.

The large, glass-walled foyer space still teems with fluorescent jackets, army uniforms and civic leaders.

At its peak, the building served as an office for more than 500 people.

The first Civil Defence staff started reporting to the gallery for duty just 20 minutes after the quake and numbers quickly swelled.

By the time EOC manager Murray Sinclair arrived from Wellington at 7pm the place was "a buzz of people''.

The emergency staff quickly made the gallery their own, says Harper.

''They came into the back of house, grabbed computers and anything they can grab,'' she says.

Education spaces in the gallery intended for emergency use quickly filled and Civil Defence staff were soon hungry for more room.

The gallery spaces were the next area they wanted to use as office space. They took over the exhibition of Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden and worked for a couple of days with his distinctive and stormy paintings of Otira Gorge displayed around them.

Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton said he will always remember the unusual workspace.

"The memory for me with this one was it was kind of surreal. People were banging away on computers and these gloomy paintings were hanging on the wall,'' he says.

Civil Defence leaders wanted to use the army to quickly clear artwork from more exhibition spaces, but gallery staff insisted they wait for curators to remove and store the artworks properly.

"One of the key things at the beginning was making sure it was us bringing the works down. They wanted the army to come in and take down the works, but we said no and got a team together ourselves,'' Harper says.

"They would not have had gloves on. It would be quick and dirty if the army did it, but in six hours we could clear the gallery and they would have to wait.''
But Harper has learned not to be precious about the gallery in emergency mode.

"This is a public building. It is not precious. At times like this people don't notice any difference between art and the building,'' she said.

''There is a photograph of a man in a flouro jacket using his walkie talkie. His foot is up on the sculpture in the foyer. He had no concept that this might be something precious, that we don't normally touch these objects, never mind put your foot on it. It is completely different.''

The gallery has certainly changed. Wireless internet routers are gaffer taped to walls and posts, hand-scrawled signs and photographs of the devastation are taped to walls and the dramatic Andrew Drummond sculptures that once animated the foyer are stacked under the main stairs. The Tait Gallery is now home for the Civil Defence legal team and the Stewart Gallery houses the debris management and heritage team. In a crisp display of power, Hamilton has taken over Harper's office.

A glass display case that once held "The Marble from Mount Burnett'' for the Leo Bensemann exhibition has been customised by the new staff. It now contains a small plastic figurine of All Blacks star Richie McCaw.

But a mighty clean up will turn the building back into a gallery by early July.

"We are going to have a big clean up. Clean the carpets and repaint. What you find is people shove things up on the wall and put nails through materials. It will take a bit of repair time,'' says Harper.

"People have taken food into areas where it is not normally allowed. We will have to get the whole place fumigated. We don't want insects of any kind. We've had sparrows in here.''

Harper is in the early stages of planning exhibitions for the reopening and plans to show work by artists displaced by the February earthquake.

The Debuilding exhibition ran for just 12 days before the quake, but will not be revived.

"It is no longer appropriate as an exhibition. It includes video of a sledge hammer going into a house and another video where an arm is coming through a ceiling. There has been loss of life this time. We can't show that exhibition,'' says Harper.

Harper hopes the reopened gallery can lead the rebirth of the city centre.

"If we can get the Canterbury Museum, the Botanic Gardens and the Art Gallery going around here it will make a big difference and give something for people to do.''

"A place like this can provide a real sense of healing as well as renewal. We have come to symbolise the kind of place the city can become. We have a sense of stability.''

The gallery has performed so well as an emergency centre, Sinclair says it could be used in any future emergencies instead of a planned $3.9 million standalone facility. The gallery's back up generator and special quake-resistant design has proved invaluable.

"We can see that this has worked remarkably well so we might have to revisit the plan to build a standalone facility. We could make a saving given the council will have a substantial infrastructure bill to pick up,'' he says.

"It could be prudent to review if we need to build a standalone.''

Harper says providing the EOC with space is part of the gallery's broader role.

"We are at the centre and the heart of the city. We are part of the city and when the city goes down you are caught up in it. We don't want to be isolationist. We are part of the community. This is a marvellous space.''

"But, you don't want it to be the EOC for any longer than it needs to be.''

Harper has made a habit of paying a daily visit to Hamilton as he works away in her office.

"I put my head round the door every day and ask if I can have my office back yet.''

- The Press

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