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The History of The Dowse

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Installation view of Ruby: A 40 Year Love Affair with The Dowse, The Dowse Art Museum, Hutt City Installation view of Ruby: A 40 Year Love Affair with The Dowse, The Dowse Art Museum, Hutt City Installation view of Ruby: A 40 Year Love Affair with The Dowse, The Dowse Art Museum, Hutt City Installation view of Ruby: A 40 Year Love Affair with The Dowse, The Dowse Art Museum, Hutt City

By arranging the works chronologically, grouped according to decade and Director, Ruby illustrates how the changing directions of The Dowse is reflected in its collection. And while some may feel that the works are perhaps not given quite enough space to breathe, this survey show is more about The Dowse as an institution than the works themselves.

Lower Hutt

 

Ruby: A 40 Year Love Affair with The Dowse

 

14 May - 14 August 2011

As the name suggests, this exhibition marks the 40th birthday of what began as The Dowse Art Gallery, and after several changes is now simply known as The Dowse. And as the exhibition documents, the name hasn’t been the only thing about this institution that has changed over the past four decades.

This collection show takes up the entire upstairs Blumhardt gallery, and is tightly packed with highlights from The Dowse’s wide and varied collection. This ranges from significant works from New Zealand’s Modern Masters, McCahon, Walters, Woollaston & co, through to traditional and more contemporary modes of craft practice, outsider art, photography, furniture design, street art and works by contemporary artists. This might suggest some kind of curatorial chaos, but by arranging the works chronologically, grouped according to decade and Director, Ruby illustrates how the changing directions of The Dowse is reflected in its collection. And while some may feel that the works are perhaps not given quite enough space to breathe, this survey show is more about The Dowse as an institution than the works themselves. This definitely isn’t a white cube show, but then The Dowse has never been interested in presenting itself as a white cube space.

Since 1971, the six directors of the Dowse (David Millar, Jim Barr, James Mack, Bob Maysmor, Tim Walker and current director Cam McCracken) have each in different ways shaped the direction of The Dowse. The early aim of developing a nationally significant collection of contemporary art is evident in the Hotere, Walters and McCahon works on display, acquired under the stewardship of Jim Barr. Throughout the exhibition key works from the collection are used to illustrate the changing relationship The Dowse and its directors have had with the local community. The controversy following the purchase of McCahon’s Wall of Death in 1977 for $3,000 shows that while things haven’t always run smoothly for The Dowse, they haven’t been afraid of challenging audiences.

Increasing awareness of issues facing many in the local community since the economic changes of the 1980s and ‘90s led to more socially engaged collecting and exhibiting practices. This is illustrated by some great examples of documentary photography (eg: Ans Westra) and outsider art (Martin Thompson). A large graffiti panel work, formerly a permanent fixture on the exterior of the pre-refurbishment building, from the first Respect Hip Hop festival, shows how The Dowse has often used creativity as a means to engage different groups within the community (in this case local youth in response to a perceived graffiti problem).

The Dowse’s role as New Zealand’s leading collector of decorative arts (both traditional and contemporary) throughout its history is also evident, and the works displayed here not only reflect changes in The Dowse’ policy regarding this but also broader changes in craft practice. The importance of James Mack’s decision to support and collect less traditional craft practice has to be considered here, and has arguably been one of the defining features of The Dowse brand. More recently, under Maysmor and Walker, design has also come to play an important role at The Dowse. The appointment of Cam McCracken and Senior Curator Emma Bugden, both previously at Te Tuhi, suggests perhaps a renewed focus on contemporary art. In any case, this is the Hutt’s gain and Auckland’s loss.

Beyond the necessarily celebratory tone of a birthday show, it was refreshing to see a local institution looking at itself as an institution, and opening itself to the public in such an accessible way. While other galleries programmes often engage with what has been described as the New Institutionalism, this is often undertaken through the use of such vague utopic and progressive jargon that it often only succeeds in mystifying large portions of its audience. And while these performative exercises may critically examine the white cube, they usually fail to explore the institution’s specific historical and political context. Which is exactly what The Dowse has done. Ruby demonstrates how The Dowse has succeeded in not being a white cube for the past 40 years.

If anything, Ruby is a great opportunity to see a great range of works in the one place. And while not every work will be to everyone’s taste, everyone should be able to find something they can enjoy.

Andrea Bell

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