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‘Auckland is a mix of straight-lace British and let-it-roll Māori.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Juliana Engberg


Explore Playbook

Gems in
this story

Feature by Caroline Clements

Whip-sharp, fast-talking Juliana Engberg is an Australian curator, cultural producer and writer who has traveled the world extensively for her work — most recently to Aotearoa, working as the Senior Global Curator of Contemporary Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

With a shock of wiry gray hair and a uniform of black, it’s hard to miss her; at an exhibition opening in Sydney, on the streets of Venice between Biennale events, or wandering the gallery spaces at Auckland’s Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Juliana has worked with artists around the world, from Barbara Kruger to Patricia Piccinini and with world-beating art organizations in Denmark, Edinburgh, New Zealand, and all over Australia. As a traveler of the world, Juliana is constantly in motion, but has spent the last little while getting to know the city of Auckland. She tells us about her affection for the stoic New Zealand people and her favorite parts of the city in her Auckland Travel Playbook.


On working with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

I’m technically referred to as a disrupter. I’m quite good at going into organizations, reformulating team ideas and generating people’s energies. People think of me as a curator, but actually I’m not a bad leader either — I’m good at building teams. Something that people don’t know about me so much, because they think of me as a contemporary art curator, is that I love collections. And I really love art history. It was never meant to be permanent, but it was quite an opportunity with AAGTOT [Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki].

On growing up in the suburbs

I grew up out in the boondocks of Melbourne, the real fringe. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, but it’s what my parents could afford. There was an hour bus that took you to a train station that then took you into the city. My mom and I used to hop on and hotfoot into the city, which was fabulous. I’d go to the museum and the art gallery and the pictures. It was magic.

On the appeal of Fine Arts

I was determined from a very early age to study Fine Arts. The reason is a bit corny. My father was a shift worker and used to come home very late. I would often stay up to make sure he got home. And there was a television program on quite late at night, which was about this guy who was a curator, but was really a spy. I wanted to be that dude. He combined everything that I'm interested in: art, and a bit of intrigue.

First row of Juliana Engberg on a beach. Second row left of Juliana at a restaurant; right at the Cass railway station in New Zealand. Third and fourth rows of Juliana working. Fourth row of Juliana in front of an artwork by Tacita Dean in London. All images courtesy of Juliana Engberg.

On when you started traveling

My parents and I would get in a car at 4am and hurtle our way to Queensland for summer holidays. Without a stop, no toilet breaks. It was always very stressful, and not entirely enjoyable for all sorts of reasons. But when I started university, I worked very hard to save money, and would take myself to Europe. From 18 onwards, I went to Europe every year. I would go and embed myself in a place like Florence or Venice, and that was tremendous. I was poor as a church mouse, and often kind of starving, but I was looking at Ghiberti’s doors in the Florence Duomo.

‘I travel fast and furiously; not any time wasted on the ground. So what I gather into my mind is what I pick up incidentally — I'm an incidental tourist.’

On making connections through travel

What travel provides is the opportunity to meet face-to-face with people that I'm interested in, then have deep conversations with them. But almost to a point, I have always met the artist. I make big efforts to go and spend time with them. For instance, with Pipilotti Rist, who has become an extremely close friend, I saw her like 10 times in the studio before we would do a big show together. When you're working at a distance like Australia to Zürich, you need to front up and show a genuine interest in spending time with that person, going to their shows in other places in the world.

On what kind of traveler you are

I travel fast and furiously; not any time wasted on the ground. I am not a great tourist, straight up. So what I gather into my mind is what I pick up incidentally — I'm an incidental tourist, because I'm generally focused on getting to the studio, the gallery, the meeting. I'm fortunate because artists tend to live in very interesting parts of cities. Generally, they’re the first people into the new emerging areas.

On a travel uniform

I always wear the same thing: black shirt, black pants. That's it. And if it's winter, I've got a coat. It makes things easy and simple to travel. I don’t think about fashion; it’s not my bag.

First row of Scarecrow café courtesy of Scarecrow. Second and third rows of Coco’s Cantina restaurant courtesy of Lula Cucchiara. Fourth row of The Island Grocer courtesy of The Island Grocer. Fifth row of Karangahape Road courtesy of Karangahape Road.

On the geography of Auckland

I've come to realize that topology actually influences a lot about a city. Auckland is built into a trough. There's Queen Street, which is the main street, and either side of it is immediately very hilly. Because it’s a volcanically organized landscape, the city itself has never been able to grow terribly much. Once you get beyond the trough, to the top of the sort of volcanic edge as it were, it starts to be very pretty and attractive. Auckland is not about the city — it's about the geography and the nature around it.

On some of your favorite places in Auckland

Karangahape Road or K’ Road — there’s a variety of things going on. If you walk along from there, you reach Ponsonby. Ponsonby is full of cool cafés, good shops and lovely wooden houses that are immaculately looked after, because they're very fond of their architecture. I have walked every length and breadth of this area.


‘My very favorite café on Waiheke is The Island Grocer, and they do this absolutely wicked, delicious pastrami and pickle sandwich on focaccia.’

On the best cafés

My favorite café is Scarecrow, which is right in the city, perched on the top of the hill. It makes a nice coffee. It's got a casual feel and some outdoor seating, and is a good place to hang out. There's another place that I love called Coco’s Cantina. It’s got a real kind of civic vibe. You go there and everyone's really friendly; the food's really good. It's a mixture of Italian meets Pacific. It’s a great atmosphere: full of local people having a good time. And I noticed that whatever Coco's Cantina puts on its menu, it pops up on everybody else's menu, eventually. They're a quiet leader of things.


On a quick escape to Waiheke Island

One of the best things about Auckland is a little island called Waiheke, which is 40 minutes from my door. You hop on a bus, hop on a ferry to the island, hop on another bus — boom, you're in your Airbnb. The proximity, and the fact that it's not completely overdeveloped, is astonishing to me. It's got a fabulously long beach called Onetangi. It's a two-kilometer stretch, just wonderful. Then my very favorite café on Waiheke is The Island Grocer, and they do this absolutely wicked, delicious pastrami and pickle sandwich on focaccia. It's the best-tasting thing you ever had.


On a window or an aisle seat

Aisle. I like to get up and wander.

On Auckland in one word

Maverick. It’s a little bit, ‘we’ll do it ourselves in our own way, and it'll be okay.’ It's an interesting mixture between the kind of straight-laced, up-tightness of the British and the Protestant Scottish, and kind of more ‘let it roll, and let's get a bit sexy and saucy’ of the Pacific and the Māori.


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