New Zealand’s art galleries underwent a distinct period of modernisation in the 1970s after decades of grumbling by some critics and artists. Post-Second World War urbanisation and population growth, increased international travel and a growing sense that New Zealand was a Pacific nation rather than a British outpost created an appetite for contemporary New Zealand art.
In and out
New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery is noted for its commitment to contemporary art and its distinctive collecting policy. It has an active de-accessioning policy, and items in the collection are regularly sold to make way for new works. This means the gallery’s collection remains truly contemporary.
Galleries had to modernise or wither and all rose to the challenge, though not without difficulties along the way. The focus of new collecting and exhibitions turned to contemporary New Zealand art and many galleries developed public outreach programmes to lure in new, younger audiences. Direct control by art societies and councils was slowly severed.
New public galleries
In 1969 the Wairarapa Arts Centre (which became Aratoi) opened. Generous increases in government funding of the arts in the 1970s allowed existing galleries to expand and more new galleries to open. Public galleries that opened that decade were:
- Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth (1970)
- Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt (1971)
- Hastings City Cultural Centre (1975 – later Hawke’s Bay Exhibition Centre)
- Rotorua Art Gallery (1977 – later Rotorua Museum of Art and History).
Most public art galleries have permanent collections, but the City Gallery Wellington does not. Artworks on display come from artists, collectors and other galleries.
A further nine new public galleries opened between 1980 and 1990, some in major cities (including City Gallery Wellington in 1980 and Artspace in Auckland in 1987) and others in small towns such as Gore (the Eastern Southland Gallery in 1984). More opened in the 21st century. In 2011 the Auckland Art Gallery was completely redeveloped, cementing its position as New Zealand’s leading gallery.
Though some of the new galleries experienced conflicts over the display and value of contemporary New Zealand art – particularly those that opened in the 1970s – they were able to build a strong case for focusing on local work because they were starting from scratch. These galleries were established with professional staff from the outset and these people were committed to contemporary, local art.
With the exception of international touring exhibitions, which attracted large audiences and revenue, by the 21st century the majority of exhibitions, and acquisitions, were the work of local artists.
Galleries depended on passers-by as well as intentional visitors, so location was important. Some that had been off the beaten track moved to more central locations. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery was in the city’s north until 1996, when it moved into The Octagon. The new Christchurch Art Gallery opened in the city centre in 2003, replacing the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in the Botanic Gardens.
Some public galleries became well-known for particular collections. In 2002 psychologist John Money donated his art collection, which included works by significant New Zealand artists including Rita Angus and Theo Schoon, to the Eastern Southland Gallery. The gallery, which is in Gore, also has a large collection of artworks by Ralph Hotere. The Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth holds an extensive Len Lye collection and archive.
National Art Gallery
New Zealand is unique among comparable countries in opening a National Art Gallery, only to later disestablish it. In 1992 the National Art Gallery was dissolved and the collection was incorporated into the new Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, which opened in a new building in 1998. The lack of dedicated space for the collection in the new museum building and the way works from the collection were displayed caused some controversy.
The Chartwell Trust was established in Hamilton in the early 1970s to promote visual arts, and it started collecting art in 1974. The art was exhibited at the Waikato Museum of Art and History until the mid-1990s, when it was moved to the Auckland Art Gallery.
In 1988 the Electricity Corporation (a state-owned enterprise) established the Rutherford Trust, which amassed a collection of New Zealand art. The collection was transferred to Aratoi, the Wairarapa Museum of Art, in 2006.
In 2009 American philanthropists Julian and Josie Robertson announced their plan to gift significant modernist paintings – ranging from Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – to the Auckland Art Gallery after their deaths.
Since 2001 major private collectors have been important engineers, with Creative New Zealand, of New Zealand’s series of exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, the most important of the international jamborees, at which art is displayed in national pavilions.