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, the city made great progress including the building of facilities such as The War Memorial Library, The Lower Hutt Town Hall, swimming pools and Ewen Bridge. It was Mary Dowse, however, who had a particular interest in the arts and championed the addition of an art gallery to this impressive list. 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. Percy continued to lead the project, but sadly passed away in 1970 while the building was still under construction.
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.
David Millar was appointed the first Director in 1971. This initial period was characterised by the struggle to introduce an art gallery to a relatively new city, and engage a community that had little experience with contemporary art. Initially The Dowse presented one exhibition a month. Millar scheduled exhibitions that were perceived by the public as non-threatening and conservative, and featured a strong selection of solo shows from established artists such as Don Binney, Brian Brake and Len Castle. Craft exhibitions proved popular and were mixed with contemporary fine art. It was the establishment of the collection during the 1970s that put The Dowse on the road to becoming a nationally significant cultural centre. Millar, with an acquisition budget of $2,000, added New Zealand ceramics, textiles, weaving and paintings to the collection. With London’s Victoria and Albert Museum collection in mind, Millar purchased The Dowse’s first ceramic item, Mirek Smisek’s Salt Glazed Branch Pot, in 1972. The Dowse soon developed one of the finest collections of ceramics in New Zealand. The ceramic legacy continues with a recent bequest made in 2010 from local ceramicist and educator Dame Doreen Blumhardt and today The Dowse has over 500 ceramics in its collection. By the mid 1970s The Dowse had gained a national reputation for collecting contemporary New Zealand fine art, alongside an established craft niche.
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.
Jim Barr became Director in 1976. Barr continued with a craft and community focus but was instrumental in developing the collection to represent the canon of New Zealand contemporary art. Additions to the collection included work by Ralph Hotere, Gordon Walters and Colin McCahon. Barr sought to educate visitors to The Dowse, explaining, ‘If people saw enough good contemporary art they would get to like it—they just couldn’t help themselves’. The Dowse continued to acquire ceramics, acknowledging it as a unique strength of the collection. Barr also added photography and works on paper to the collection policy, partly because they were affordable, and partly because they enabled visitors to understand the ideas and processes behind the creation of artwork. Textiles were also important during this period.
During his time, Jim Barr sparked controversy with his programming. One example was his refusal to display work from the Hutt Valley china painters, choosing instead to exhibit a collection of Diana Arbus photographs. Controversy also surrounded Colin McCahon’s Wall of Death; A Banner, purchased in 1977 for the now minuscule sum of $3,000. Debate arose when a City Councillor claimed that he could ‘knock one up just like it in his lunch hour’, after which TV One issued an invitation to the City Councillor to paint one similar… live on set.
James Mack (Galvan Macnamara) was appointed Director in 1981 and represented a major shift in the collection focus away from fine arts towards ‘fine arts executed in materials traditionally associated with the crafts.’
‘The public will forgive you as long as you are not boring. You have to do things which are challenging, which are commanding, otherwise you fail once again in the education process.’
Until the 1980s, very few institutions in New Zealand included craft in their collection policy. Radically, The Dowse emphasised the craft arts and built on the glass, jewellery, body adornment, fibre and ceramic works in the collection. This defining shift towards craft was based on Mack’s view that craft art was a niche that no other museum had. Mack also added a number of works by emerging artists with whom he developed strong relationships over the years. His intention was to make The Dowse accessible to everyone, particularly seen in the development of the Tactile Collection, an educational resource of works that people could touch. The 1980s was also a time of great political, economic and social change, which was reflected in the exhibition programme. The resulting additions to the collection were craft-based, often a little eccentric and often hotly debated. In 1982 the new museum wing opened and The Dowse changed its name from The Dowse Art Gallery to The Dowse Art Museum in line with Mack’s view that the collection ‘will not be seen in its importance until it has moved into the next century.’
Nuku Tewhatewha, a Pataka (storehouse), was built in the 1850s. It was given to The Dowse in 1982 for restoration and since then the institution has acted as guardian and caretaker. Nuku Tewhatewha was commissioned by Wī Tako Ngātata of Te Āti Awa as a symbol of a political initiative – Kingitanga, the Maori King Movement. It was one of seven Pātaka built by High Chiefs from around Aotearoa to support the Kīngitanga movement. Together, the Pātaka were regarded as The Pillars of the Kingdom.
Bob Maysmor was appointed Director in 1988. During the 1990s The Dowse continued to offer exhibitions that ‘reflected a standard of excellence.’ Maysmor also formalised a number of procedures and practices, reflective of a national growing awareness of professional museum practice. The 1990s was a period of social change in New Zealand bringing with it an increased responsiveness towards social issues. Programming at The Dowse reflected this awareness, seen in exhibitions such as Big Green, which raised issues of environmental awareness, Tattoos in the Body Adornment series and Don’t Push Me, Ann Shelton’s photographs of street kids. These exhibitions were designed to welcome new audiences to The Dowse. Budgetary constraints during the 1990s were also felt by cultural institutions throughout New Zealand and impacted on collecting, resulting in an emphasis on buying smaller body adornment work and the decorative arts. The Dowse continued to collect craft and in 1993 added furniture to the collection policy.
Prior to the 1990s the collection storeroom held only painting frames with the collections of glass and ceramics housed in old display plinths and the textiles stored in boxes. Over a five year period Maysmor and his staff substantially upgraded the collection storeroom so that the work was properly housed and protected. The Dowse extended its collection policy to include design furniture, bridging craft and design. It continued to collect jewellery and works relating to body adornment during the 1990s, often those with a Pacific influence. The Dowse also initiated the Jewellery Biennial in 1993, an important move for the jewellery sector in New Zealand. During the 1990s The Dowse continued to build on its contemporary photo-documentary collection, particularly focussing on work which reflected social issues of the time
Tim Walker became Director in 1998 and a focus for The Dowse in the 2000s was the celebration and transformative power of creativity. Walker asked people to ‘forget museum or gallery’ and to think of the Dowse as a ‘21st century creative hub’. The collection and exhibition programme encompassed all forms of art, craft and design with ‘innovation, inspiration, education, accessibility and engagement’ as the key principles. The Dowse also added design to the collection policy and continued a focus on collecting work by Maori and Pacific Island artists. Body adornment and works relating to the body remained an important theme, seen in the addition of The Gold Awards to the programme. During this time The Dowse also underwent a major redevelopment of the building and a shift in the brand from The Dowse Art Museum to TheNewDowse in 2007.
During the late 1990s and 2000s The Dowse introduced programmes such as Respect, a Hip Hop music and graffiti art festival, Wild Wheels and The New Cool, an exhibition celebrating youth entrepreneurship.The first Respect Festival, in direct reference to Lower Hutt’s issue with graffiti, was programmed in 1999. Featuring break-dancers, hip-hop music and work created live by graf artists Respect attracted huge numbers and signalled a shift in position regarding youth issues in Lower Hutt. The Dowse continued to collect jewellery and ceramics during the 2000s. The biennial Gold Award, supported by the Dowse Foundation, ran for 10 years with the winning design going into the collection.
Cam McCracken became Director in 2009 and today The Dowse is a dynamic institution which pairs an internationally recognised, contemporary programme with meaningful community engagement. The connections between artists and audiences are crucial, with The Dowse committed to developing and nurturing long-term relationships with both artists and the wider community. The collection remains a critical element for the institution, with recent acquisitions revealing a contemporary focus that highlights key developments in New Zealand art, by artists of significance.