There was a 20-year gap between the opening of the last art gallery of the 19th century (the Suter in 1899) and the first gallery of the 20th century. When Whanganui farmer Henry Sarjeant died in 1912, he left a considerable sum of money in his will for a public art gallery, and the Sarjeant Gallery opened in 1919.
Christchurch’s first public art gallery, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery (which became the Christchurch Art Gallery), opened in 1932. As with the Suter and Sarjeant, the name commemorated the gallery’s founding benefactor, a Christchurch businessman.
The Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum (now MTG Hawke’s Bay) followed in 1936.
National Art Gallery
The collection of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (NZAFA), Wellington’s art society, formed the nucleus of the National Art Gallery, which was established in Wellington in 1936. The NZAFA’s collection was dominated by British works, and this approach governed the gallery’s collecting practice for the next few decades.
The National Art Gallery was combined with the Dominion Museum in a new building that opened in 1936. The gallery and museum was partially financed by the sale of the NZAFA building.
No national art
Alexander McLintock, the curator of the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand, argued that New Zealand art lacked any truly national identity, ‘and I doubt that such will be the case until we realise the distinctive and peculiar characteristics which we have to express … If our art galleries in the coming years will build up a comprehensive and well-selected collection of New Zealand art, they will be doing more for the country than by the purchase of some of the best art from overseas.’1
Historian Alexander McLintock orchestrated the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art, which toured New Zealand from 1940 to 1941 as part of national centennial celebrations. This exhibition was the first curated survey of the nation’s art and presented a varied selection of 355 exhibits, from the artists of the Tasman and Cook voyages of the 17th and 18th centuries to topical contemporary paintings such as A. Lois White’s ‘War makers’ (1937). McLintock further extended the boundaries of art with his inclusion of popular cartoons by the likes of ‘Blo’ (William Blomfield) and David Low.
Galleries, 1940s to 1960s
There was a spate of public art gallery openings after the Second World War. The first was the Waikato Museum of Art and History in Hamilton in 1947, and it was followed by:
- Anderson Park Gallery in Invercargill (1951)
- Gisborne Museum and Arts Centre (1954 – now Tairawhiti Museum)
- Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru (1956)
- Manawatu Art Gallery in Palmerston North (1959 – now Te Manawa)
- Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill (1961).
Preserved and pickled
Writer A. R. D. Fairburn added a literary flavour to his criticism of art galleries. In 1948 he declared that some artworks on display at public galleries should be ‘presented in bottles of methylated spirit’ because they were old and uninspiring.2
Art galleries tended to conservatism from the outset, and art societies were also not known for pushing artistic boundaries, though they may have been more receptive to modernist art than critics gave them credit for. Most galleries were controlled by art societies and councils, and run by amateur curators in a voluntary capacity. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the Robert McDougall Art Gallery were heavily criticised for their conservative collecting practices and rejection of modernist art.
Whanganui’s Sarjeant was controlled by the city council and overseen by one honorary curator from 1933 to 1974. The gallery’s noted hostility towards modernist art led to it being seen by many as the most traditional, old-fashioned gallery in New Zealand.
Under the leadership of Peter Tomory, from 1956 to 1964, the Auckland City Art Gallery showed contemporary New Zealand art, but it was the exception. Auckland also took the lead in touring international contemporary exhibitions.
Some artists formed alternative exhibiting groups because they were unable to get their work displayed at public galleries or in art society exhibitions. The Group in Christchurch (1925–77) and the Rutland Group in Auckland (1935–55) provided display opportunities for modernist artists.
Modern dealer galleries, which focused on sales of original, contemporary New Zealand art rather than reproductions and framing services, emerged after the Second World War. The first of this breed was the Helen Hitchings Gallery in Wellington (1949–51). Dealer galleries were more securely established by the 1960s. The longest-lived of these is the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, established in 1968 and still operating in the 2000s.
Dealer galleries were crucial engines driving the private collecting of contemporary art, which grew in significance in the 1960s. Fletcher Holdings began buying art in 1962 and the collection grew to become the most significant corporate art collection in New Zealand.
Wellingtonians Les and Milly Paris began collecting in 1963 and steadily filled their modest suburban home with contemporary New Zealand art. In 2012 their collection was sold at auction for a then-record $4.65 million. Aucklander James Wallace’s private collection, which started in the 1960s, comprised 8,000 works by 2017. It was exhibited in Pah Homestead, Hillsborough.