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The Dowse Art Gallery was officially opened by His Excellency the Governor General Sir Arthur Porritt, in 1971, "In this gallery you, the citizens of Lower Hutt, have not only a magnificent new civic amenity, but also a nucleus from which can grow amongst New Zealanders, both young and old, a love of real beauty."

The Dowse is named for Mayor Percy and Mayoress Mary Dowse. Sadly neither of them lived to see the doors open. Percy Dowse was elected Mayor in 1950 and served until his death in 1970. He believed that a modern city should have a range of physical, social and cultural facilities and under his leadership, but it was Mary Dowse, however, who had a particular interest in the arts and championed the art gallery. Together with Elizabeth Harper from The Hutt Art Society, they lobbied the City Council who in 1963 agreed to provide space for an art gallery in an extension of The War Memorial Library. When Mary tragically died in a road accident in 1964, the City Council unanimously decided that a separate art gallery would be a more fitting memorial for her.

The opening exhibition was a survey of New Zealand art titled Artists of the Wellington Province 1939–1971. Featuring a wide range of artists from Charles Heaphy to Don Peebles, the exhibition had one aim: ‘to introduce people in the Lower Hutt to the key trends of New Zealand art’. A varied programme of events featured spinning, weaving and ceramic demonstrations, films, folk singing and an evening lecture by Hamish Keith on The State and Future of New Zealand Art. The first year included a number of solo and group exhibitions of well-known New Zealand artists.

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. During the 1970s Director David Millar programmed two Hutt Art Society exhibitions, a spring and an autumn show. The Hutt Art Society had hoped for more, but Millar argued that The Dowse ‘belonged to the city, not the art society’, and needed to present a diverse exhibition programme. In 1979 The Hutt Art Society moved into their own gallery close to The Dowse, called The Odlin Gallery.

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, featured here. In 1975 The Friends also commissioned carvings by local carver Rangi Hetet, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of The Dowse, which still stand at the entrance of The Dowse today.

The Dowse Art Museum receives core funding from the Hutt City Council and is operated alongside the Petone Settlers Museum. By providing museums, the Council enables people to freely access arts and cultural facilities that enrich, inspire and offer a range of lifelong learning opportunities. The museum acts as a focal point for the community, enhances cultural life and diversity, and promotes civic pride and community values.