The redevelopment of Hastings Civic Square, which includes, of course, the Hastings City Art Gallery (HCAG), raises questions of just what is the role of a provincial art gallery.

Should it be primarily a venue for the encouragement of artists who live and work locally or should it be purely and simply a showcase for art even if it means the exclusion of ‘local artists’? Are these two functions compatible?

If the prime purpose is to further the development of local art and to highlight local stories and character, then how is this best achieved? Is there a part to be played by showing the best possible art from outside Hawke’s Bay?

I believe that we can find a parallel in the history of the Hawke’s Bay wine industry. In the late 60s and early 70s I can recall some fairly dodgy local red wines that seemed OK at the time to my uninformed palate. (After all they did have alcohol!) Then one evening a good friend with a wine cellar (choose your friends wisely) opened a bottle of Pichon – Longueville from Bordeaux. It was a road to Damascus experience followed at a later date by a Chambertin from Burgundy and a Penfold’s Grange.

Life was never going to be the same again, the journey had begun.

A more careful look at local wines revealed one or two that were quite decent, especially those made by Tom McDonald at Greenmeadows. Even more thoughtful comparisons revealed things like the 1976 McWilliams cabernet sauvignon being better than the 1977.

This was only 40-odd years ago and the important thing is the increasing part played by local winemakers in meeting the challenge of achieving higher standards, supported by an increasingly knowledgeable and discerning local market. How would the wine industry in Hawke’s Bay look now if people like Tom McDonald, John Buck and Alan Lymmer had focused their talents on Henderson or the Hunter Valley instead of here?

A suggestion was made after EAST 2012 that the standard of locally based artists in that show suffered by comparison with the expatriates also shown. While there were several indifferent works included, for my money, four of the best works in the show were by locally based artists, Para Matchitt, David Trubridge, Wellesley Binding and Peter Baker.

It was suggested that local art was not as strong as ‘we’ think, whatever that may mean and whoever ‘we’ are. This may well be true but these things are all relative. Hawke’s Bay art is probably better than that of Eketahuna. Auckland is stronger than Hawke’s Bay, but Sydney is stronger than that of Auckland and London is stronger than that of Sydney. For that matter New Zealand art is probably not as strong as we think.

Our local artists have much to offer.

The real point is, are there local artists whose work has something worthwhile to say and do they show a degree of professional commitment that would justify supporting them with exhibition space?

Well, absolutely yes. There is so much to find in their work.

We can enjoy Martin Poppelwell’s deconstruction of artistic conventions, the history content of a Chris Bryant-Toi, the obsessively crafted work of Jo Blogg, the otherworldliness of Michael Hawksworth, and the ingeniously idiosyncratic creations of Ben Pearce, to name a few.

Most significantly, I can say after more than 40 years of surveying the local art scene that there are far more artists of interest here than ever before, so we must be doing something right. The constructively selective curatorial practices of the HCAG and the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery have been a major factor in this progress.

In a recent trip to Australia I enjoyed the work of the big guns like Sidney Nolan, Rosalie Gascoigne and Imants Tillers in the major galleries of NSW and Victoria, but in one or two smaller centres like Armidale I was pleasantly surprised by the vitality and distinctiveness of local artists not known to me.

Yes, Regionalism in art in the sense of artists reacting to local light and landforms may no longer be particularly fashionable, but artists in regions most certainly are still important, thank goodness.

The local scene may be viewed as a microcosm of what happened to New Zealand art over the 20th century. For much of that time we looked to the northern hemisphere for artistic leadership. The permanent collections of our major art galleries are stacked with well meaning but largely irrelevant acquisitions of works by mediocre British academicians of that time. We looked to send our best artists overseas.

The poet William Pember Reeves wrote of the colonist in his garden being urged to “turn back to England, life and art”. So talented artists like Frances Hodgkins and Raymond McIntyre moved to Europe and achieved modest success as European artists. Others, like McCahon, Angus, Woollaston and Hotere stayed here. They provided the seismic jolt that initiated the creative tsunami of New Zealand art in the latter part of the 20th century. The rest, as they say, is history.

Historically the best artists come from thriving art communities and a provincial gallery has a vital role to play in nurturing that community. This doesn’t mean an uncritical massaging of artists’ egos, but it can be achieved through dialogue with the art community and a critical curatorial approach that gives an incentive for artists to develop and extend their practice.

HCAG has, I believe, largely achieved this and is also achieving a growing national reputation as a worthwhile ‘Art Destination’. Most importantly Hawke’s Bay artists look upon it as their spiritual ‘home’.

Benign climate?!

One writer suggested (tongue in cheek I imagine), that a benign climate like Hawke’s Bay is not conducive to intellectual creativity. Oh, dear. Goodbye to Gauguin in Tahiti, Hockney and Diebenkorn in California, Matisse in the south of France and the entire cultural oeuvre of Periclean Athens!

Without the stimulus of the best possible art from outside, local art could easily become complacent. Quality shows from outside such as Multiply, curated last year by Judith Anderson, set a standard for artists and viewers alike. It has been said that the most important ingredient for a well-written letter is the quality of the recipient. This applies equally to the art world and the importance of critical and well-informed viewers cannot be exaggerated.

All readers of this article take a bow.

20 Years of Winners now at the HCAG represents some of New Zealand’s best art from the Wallace Awards. While there is nothing here really controversial, such as Dane Mitchell or Et Al, it is something of a ‘Who’s who’ in recent New Zealand art. Notable inclusions are Judy Millar who represented New Zealand in the previous Venice Biennale; Bill Hammond who is arguably our most influential painter since the heyday of McCahon and Hotere; and James Robinson who, in my opinion is the best painter working in New Zealand at present. This show runs until Aug 11th and really should not be missed.

So, how do I think that Hastings City Art Gallery should ply its trade?

Well, I would like to see it running more education programmes and mounting exhibitions which could be toured to other centres, thus raising our national profile. However, these would require extra resourcing that is not available in these financially restrained times.

Otherwise, I believe that HCAG has got the balance between the best of Hawke’s Bay art and art from outside our region pretty well right. Let’s build upon that.

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