What’s with Whanganui
Art expands the heart of this provincial town
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