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Art galleries and collections

by Roger Blackley

Until the middle of the 20th century New Zealand art galleries mainly exhibited art from European collections. In response, groups of local artists set up their own exhibitions. From the 1970s more public galleries opened with focus on contemporary New Zealand art. Dealer galleries supported New Zealand artists by selling their work to private and corporate art collectors.

19th-century collections and galleries

Early collections

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.

International exhibitions

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

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.

Commercial galleries

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.

    • New Zealand Herald, 16 December 1882, p. 1. Back

Galleries and collections, 1900 to 1960s

New galleries

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

Centennial exhibition

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 Hamilton City Art Gallery (now Waikato Museum) 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

Gallery criticisms

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.

Dealer galleries

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.

Private collectors

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.

    • Art in New Zealand, 3 March 1940, p. 189. Back
    • Quoted in Athol McCredie, ‘Going public: New Zealand art museums in the 1970s’. MA thesis, Massey University, 1999, p. 64. Back

Modernisation and contemporary collecting, 1970s to 2000s


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.

Gallery collections

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 Hōtere. The Govett-Brewster Art 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.

Private collections

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Roger Blackley, 'Art galleries and collections', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Roger Blackley, published 22 October 2014, updated 8 August 2016