The Dowse has one of New Zealand's largest and significant public art collections. It numbers over 2,000 items.
It was the establishment of the collection during the 1970s that put The Dowse on the road to becoming a nationally significant cultural centre. The collection was begun by The Hutt Art Society with a gift of 70 paintings valued at over $8,000. These paintings remain the foundation of the collection. Millar, with an acquisition budget of $2,000, added New Zealand ceramics, textiles, weaving and paintings to the collection. With London’s Victoria and Albert Museum collection in mind, Millar purchased The Dowse’s first ceramic item, Mirek Smisek’s Salt Glazed Branch Pot, in 1972.
The Friends of The Dowse was formed in 1972 and its members have been a valuable support to the institution ever since. The Friends have been influential in purchasing and commissioning work for the collection including Toss Woollaston’s Port Nicholson from Korokoro.
Controversy surrounded the collection with the addition Colin McCahon’s Wall of Death; A Banner, purchased in 1977 for the now minuscule sum of $3,000. Debate arose when a City Councillor claimed that he could ‘knock one up just like it in his lunch hour’, after which TV One issued an invitation to the City Councillor to paint one similar… live on set.
To this day The Dowse continues to add to its collection with recent acquisitions revealing a contemporary focus that highlights key developments in New Zealand art, by artists of significance.