The first collections of European art in New Zealand arrived as the household property of well-to-do settlers and included many family portraits. For example, when the Greenwood family emigrated to Motueka in 1843 their luggage contained an exceptional portrait of a forebear, Mrs Humphrey Devereux, painted by American artist John Singleton Copley in 1771. It hung in the family home until 1965, when the family presented it to the National Art Gallery.
Personal art collections were displayed at international exhibitions (large events like trade fairs organised by governments). In 1865 Attorney General James Prendergast lent his collection of paintings by British artist George Dawe, his maternal grandfather, to the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin. He later donated this collection to the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. Governor George Grey lent a collection of Māori taonga (treasures) to the same exhibition.
Displays of art were exhibited at subsequent international exhibitions. Provincial exhibitions allowed rural communities to assert their identity through the display of ancestral heirlooms.
Art societies pre-dated art galleries and in many places were instrumental in establishing public art galleries. An art society was founded in Auckland in 1869. Group exhibitions were organised in Dunedin in the 1860s and the Otago Art Society was formed in 1876. Similar groups followed in Christchurch (1880), Wellington (1882 – it was incorporated as the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1887) and Nelson (1889). All art societies held regular exhibitions from which people could buy artworks, and they also formed their own art collections.
Public art galleries
In 1884 the Otago Art Society decided to place its art collection in the Otago Museum, and this is considered to be the founding year of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The collection was exhibited in various locations until 1890, when the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society was formed and a permanent gallery space established.
Valuing the local
In 1882 New Zealand watercolourist Alfred Sharpe praised the art collection of the Auckland Museum, hailing the ‘public art treasures’ of the city. He also urged the acquisition of ‘as many good, colonial, local pictures as possible [as] otherwise the collection will have very little interest to the bulk of the present generation’.1
George Grey’s donation of his collection of predominantly old-master paintings formed the cornerstone of the Auckland Art Gallery, the first permanent art gallery established in New Zealand. It opened in 1888. Grey’s collection included works by William Blake and Henry Fuseli, and Spanish, Dutch, French and Italian paintings. His donation triggered widespread support for the gallery. Another founding donor was James Mackelvie. His collection of old masters and works of art included Guido Reni’s ‘Saint Sebastian’ (c.1617–21).
The Bishop Suter Art Gallery (known in the 2000s as Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū) opened in Nelson in 1899. The name commemorated Andrew Suter, the second bishop of Nelson, and his wife Amelia, who gifted land, money and art for the purposes of a gallery after the bishop’s death in 1895.
A small number of commercial art galleries operated in the 19th century. They typically offered picture-framing services as well as sales of prints, engravings and original art works. Fisher Galleries started in Christchurch in 1870 and remained in business until 2010. The John Leech Gallery in Auckland, established in 1855, closed its doors in 2011.