The Dowse Turns 45

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director

31 May is the 45th anniversary of The Dowse's opening.

Mayor of Lower Hutt Mr Dowse and wife Mary outside the new Civic buildings, Lower Hutt

Mayor of Lower Hutt Mr Dowse and wife Mary outside the new Civic buildings, Lower Hutt

In 1971 in New Zealand the population was approximately 2.89 million, Keith Holyoake was prime minister, the first KFC was launched, the race Relations Act was passed, Kiri Te Kanawa made her Covent Garden debut, and Lower Hutt’s new public art gallery was opened by Governor-General Sir Arthur E. Porritt.

The dream of a public art gallery for Lower Hutt was fostered by Mayor Percy Dowse and Mayoress Mary Dowse—both of whom sadly died before The Dowse Art Gallery, named in their honour, was opened. As Mayor Kennedy-Good wrote in his introduction to the publication that accompanied The Dowse’s opening exhibition,

Among their very many attributes was a feeling that the most important services to be provided for citizens were amenities for their physical, social and cultural wellbeing. To this end we know that Lower Hutt has developed some of the finest recreational area in the country and also has one of the foremost library services. It is, perhaps, most fitting that this latest addition to the cultural facilities in the city is being named in honour of their memory. … The Art Gallery named for them is a tribute to their achievements and a lasting memorial to their love for this City of which we are all so justly proud.

As Mayor, Percy Dowse led a programme of investment in Lower Hutt including the Civic Centre, War Memorial Library, Ewen Bridge and Normandale Bridge, and the Naenae swimming pool. Mary Dowse was also a spirited campaigner for the city, a driving force behind the establishment of Hutt Hospital, Little Theatre, and, as her biography in the inaugural publication noted, “her whole personality fostered an appreciation of the cultural arts.” The proposal to add an art gallery space to the War Memorial Library had been adopted by Hutt City Council in 1963; following Mary Dowse’s untimely death in a traffic accident, the decision was made to create a stand-alone building.

Designed by Ron Muston of Structon Group Architects, The Dowse Art Gallery opened on 31 May 1971 with spinning, weaving and pottery demonstrations, film screenings and a lecture by Hamish Keith titled ‘Publicly tilting at private windmills'.

The opening exhibition, organised by The Dowse’s first director David P. Millar, had “one aim—to introduce people in the City of Lower Hutt to the main trends of New Zealand’s art.” Divided into several sections (‘The Early Period’, ‘The Romanticisers’, ‘The Contemporary Movement’) the exhibition featured paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and ceramics by artists including Charles Heaphy, Petrus van der Velden, Frances Hodgkins, Christopher Perkins, Rita Angus, John Drawbridge, Evelyn Page, Pat Hanly, Gordon Walters, Brent Wong, Juliet Peter, Tanya Ashken, Helen Mason, Doreen Blumhardt and Selwyn Muru. Artworks were drawn from public collections throughout New Zealand, local private collections, and from a donation of works given by the Hutt Art Society to The Dowse.

This inaugural presentation focused on the Wellington region, and in his introduction Millar forestalled any possible challenges:

Why has the Exhibition been limited in choice to the Wellington province? A first exhibition in a new Gallery, in a City hitherto without one, means, I hope, that a provincial limitation will enable people to grasp the main framework of our artistic history with greater ease.

A little seen well, must be better than a lot seen badly.

Today The Dowse is still proudly of Lower Hutt. However, any sense of limitations has been thrown off, as our current expansive presentation of the work of renowned Chinese contemporary artist Liu Jianhua shows. The Dowse has built both a loyal local audience and a strong national reputation, hewing close to its roots—especially as regards presenting contemporary craft/object art alongside other contemporary art forms without demur or apology—whilst always breaking new ground.

We have just started exploring ideas for our 50th anniversary in 2021: in the meantime, I hope you will join the team here in wishing The Dowse, its founders, supporters and friends past and present a very happy anniversary and equally happy future.

Courtney Johnston

Image: Mayor of Lower Hutt Mr Dowse and wife Mary outside the new Civic buildings, Lower Hutt, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1957/0871-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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