123 years ago ...

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Wednesday 31 August 2011
Anna Parlane

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Poster advertising the opening of Auckland Free Public Library, 1887
E H McCormick Research Library, Archive Folder PH01/3

As we race towards the reopening of the Gallery this week, it’s hard not to think about how this building’s original opening day must have caused similar levels of excitement and anticipation. 

Initially designed to accommodate Auckland’s public library, art gallery and municipal offices, the building’s first opening ceremony took place on 26 March 1887, when Auckland Public Library opened to a great deal of fanfare. 

Sir George Grey, who was instrumental in the creation of both the Library and the Gallery, spoke at this event: ‘Often, worn out and tired, I have imagined when the day came how triumphant I should feel.’ (words which ring true to current Gallery staff!) 

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Unknown photographer, Sir George Grey c1863

Auckland Art Gallery opened nearly a year later, on 17 February 1888. In addition to the 14,000 books and manuscripts he had gifted for the establishment of the Public Library, Grey now donated his collection of paintings, which formed the basis of the Gallery’s permanent collection. These works hung behind Governor Sir William Jervois when he declared the Gallery open, saying: 

‘I look forward to the day when this building will be too small for the Auckland Gallery of Art and the gifts of Sir George Grey and other generous people who have helped to form it... I doubt not, however, that for many a long year the fine structure in which we are assembled will afford ample space for the display of many works of art both of ancient and modern painters, which will be owned by the Municipality of Auckland.’ 

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Josiah Martin, Auckland Free Library and Art Gallery 1887, Auckland Libraries, A11347

Jervois didn’t have to wait long for the day that the building was too small for the rapidly-growing Gallery. In 1888 it occupied a single room and was run by the city's Librarian, Edward Shillington, but by 1893 the first addition was built to house the Mackelvie Collection. 

Over the past 123 years the Gallery has grown steadily, and its heritage building has grown and changed with it. In the 1880s, the opening of the Auckland Public Library and Art Gallery was seen to ‘mark an epoch in this city’s progress commercially, financially and intellectually’ – the current redevelopment project also shows us how far we have come since those early days.