Being Modern: Auckland Art Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s


exhibition Details

The Auckland Art Gallery was transformed in the mid-20th century with the arrival of directors Eric Westbrook in 1952 and his successor Peter Tomory in 1956. Both modernised the look of the Gallery and developed exhibitions that introduced local audiences to contemporary art.

Henry Moore (1956) was the first major exhibition of modernist art seen in New Zealand, and Eight New Zealand Painters (1957) the first in a series of surveys of contemporary New Zealand painting. Works by contemporary New Zealand painters such as Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon were acquired for the collection. Exhibitions ranging from contemporary craft art to ambitious group shows such as Painting from the Pacific (1961) positioned the Auckland Art Gallery as a major influence in the development of a local modernist canon.

The Gallery's building underwent a dramatic modernisation in 1953. City Architect Tibor Donner split the neoclassical Mackelvie Gallery into two with a mezzanine picture gallery above and a sculpture court below joined by a cantilever staircase. The heavy Edwardian public seating within the galleries was replaced by simple modern chairs. Both the City and Mackelvie galleries underwent major alterations in the late 1950s with glazed doors installed between them over which hung a textile curtain woven by artist Ilse von Randow. By the late 1960s plans were underway for a major new wing and sculpture garden funded by the Edmiston Trust.

New Zealand Herald article of June 1958 noted that an Auckland Festival of Art exhibition of action painting in the Auckland Art Gallery had 'raised eyebrows and some blood pressure', to which Tomory responded: 'People who come here expecting to see idyllic landscapes or pictures of little girls stroking puppies are wasting their time…' Being modern was here to stay.

Vitra Design Museum miniatures in the exhibition supplied by Matisse, Auckland

Curated by
Catherine Hammond and Caroline McBride
Mezzanine level display case
Free entry

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