What’s with Whanganui

Art ex­pands the heart of this pro­vin­cial town

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text An­thony Byrt Pho­tog­ra­phy Sam Hart­nett

Like Kather­ine Mans­field and Frances Hodgkins, Edith Col­lier was a hugely tal­ented young artist who recog­nised that be­ing a wo­man at the far end of the Bri­tish Em­pire in a con­ser­va­tive, colo­nial country was going to limit her suc­cess. So she set off from Whanganui in 1912. She stud­ied paint­ing in London and Ire­land and, after World War I, joined Hodgkins in St. Ives. Hodgkins saw huge po­ten­tial in her. But in 1921, fam­ily obli­ga­tions drew Col­lier home. Pro­vin­cial New Zealand in the 1920s was a pretty grim place for an am­bi­tious mod­ernist. Grad­u­ally, she lost mo­men­tum and aban­doned paint­ing al­to­gether. Col­lier’s story is an in­struc­tive if un­der­val­ued tale of New Zealand ex­pa­tri­atism. Our art his­tory is lit­tered with artists who left New Zealand towns and cities to test their met­tle in London, Paris, New York and Ber­lin, from Hodgkins through to Billy Ap­ple, and on to the likes of Si­mon Denny, Kate Newby and Luke Wil­lis Thompson. But there’s an­other kind of art world mi­gra­tion un­der­way right now: more and more early ca­reer artists are choos­ing the prov­inces. And one of the most pop­u­lar places for them to land is the very same town where Col­lier’s ca­reer even­tu­ally faded – Whanganui. Even 10 years ago, a move like this would have felt like an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer death-knell. But times have changed. High-speed in­ter­net is part of it, so is the chance to have a de­cent stu­dio, a de­cent house and a de­cent life, with­out hav­ing to slog in a teach­ing job or behind a cof­fee ma­chine just to buy your­self a bit of time to make art. And Whanganui, de­spite hav­ing its con­ser­va­tive mo­ments (not just back in Col­lier’s era, but the fear-and-loathing sur­re­al­ism of the Michael Laws years, too) has bet­ter cul­tural bones than many of our re­gional cen­tres. And those foun­da­tions are at­tract­ing some real ta­lent.

1. The former De­part­men­tal Build­ing was designed by the ar­chi­tec­tural di­vi­sion of the Min­istry of Works and opened in 1979. 2. Por­traits by Edith Col­lier. 3. Sar­jeant Gallery di­rec­tor Greg An­der­son. 4. Steps lead­ing to the neo­clas­si­cal build­ing. 1

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