Dowse director Cam McCracken

As The Dowse Art Museum celebrates its 40th anniversary, director Cam McCracken reflects on the past, present and future of the Lower Hutt gallery.

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As The Dowse Art Museum celebrates its 40th anniversary, director Cam McCracken reflects on the past, present and future.

He describes the early days of struggling to introduce an art gallery to a relatively new city in Lower Hutt and how the audience today is more ready to engage with contemporary art and ideas.

As The Dowse Art Museum celebrates its 40th anniversary, director Cam McCracken reflects on the past, present and future.

He describes the early days of struggling to introduce an art gallery to a relatively new city in Lower Hutt and how the audience today is more ready to engage with contemporary art and ideas.

“Our exhibition programme is perhaps more adventurous but we are still a place where contemporary art and craft (or the applied arts and design) meet and intersect.”

How are you celebrating The Dowse’s Ruby Anniversary?

We have an exhibition running until the 14th of August called Ruby. It features highlights from 40 years of collecting with works by a range of artists and representing a variety of media: ceramics, furniture, sculpture, costume, jewellery, and painting. It’s really a snapshot of the Dowse collection but also provides context, with background on each director and the evolution of the collection policy.

We had a wonderful opening event for Ruby in which we invited around 400 people to join us in celebrating The Dowse’s birthday. The first director, David Millar, came over from Sydney and we also had special guest speakers Hon Chris Finlayson, Hamish Keith (who spoke at the 1971 opening) and the Mayor of Lower Hutt, Ray Wallace.

Tell us a little bit about its beginnings.

The Dowse is named after the late Mayor and Mayoress of Lower Hutt City, Percy and Mary Dowse, who were vital advocates for the establishment of an art gallery in the city. Unfortunately, neither of them saw the doors of The Dowse open.

It was Mary Dowse 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.

What was the original ethos?

The early days for the institution were 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. Largely the exhibition programme was 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.

How has it evolved since then?

Our audience is now very sophisticated and more ready to engage with contemporary ideas, so those challenges aren’t so prevalent any more. In many ways some things have endured, we are still very publicly minded and enjoy terrific support from both local and wider communities. Our exhibition programme is perhaps more adventurous but we are still a place where contemporary art and craft (or the applied arts and design) meet and intersect.

How has the art museum helped shape contemporary art in New Zealand?

Along with our gallery peers around the country, we’ve been part of gaining a wider public acceptance of the relevance of the arts. Perhaps more specifically, over the years, the Dowse has helped break down barriers between craft and fine art

What are some highlights – including controversies - from the past?

There have been a few. But Colin McCahon’s Wall of Death; A Banner, purchased in 1977 has been a lightning rod for much controversy over the years. At the time of it’s purchase 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. It didn’t go particularly well.

More recently the same painting, having grown in monetary value exponentially, has attracted interest from a few elected representatives as being an asset which could be sold. Happily our community voiced their opposition to this and these discussions have remained just that, discussions.

Who were the directors and what was their focus?

Under David Millar and Jim Barr, the first two directors, the Dowse had a contemporary art focus but also an interest in ceramics. James Mack in the 1980s was responsible for a shift towards a dedication to craft which was maintained by Bob Maysmor his successor. A focus for The Dowse in the 2000s was the celebration and transformative power of creativity. Director Tim Walker asked people to ‘forget museum or gallery’ and to think of the Dowse as a ‘21st century creative hub’.

How has the role of director changed?

In the early days the director was part of a team of two, and therefore tended to be very hands on. David Millar talks about being required to help with not only marketing and exhibition installation, but even cleaning from time to time. We are a larger, more professional organisation today and I am a leader of a team of 20 or so museum professionals – so my role is as a transformational manager of creative people than a transactional one.

During the celebrations so far, have you discovered anything new about The Dowse?

I’ve discovered that the issues we face today are largely the same that have always been there.

Tell us a bit about your background?

I have an education grounding in both fine arts and design in that I studied Sculpture at Canterbury School of Fine Arts and Design at AUT. I’ve had exhibition management roles at the Waikato Museum of Art and History and the Auckland Art Gallery and most recently I was Director at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Manukau City.

What are some of your future plans and visions for The Dowse?

The future holds opportunities for a new sustainable approach that builds on our foundations as a leader in contemporary art, our high level of engagement with our communities and an enviable gallery space.

It’s time to embrace green technologies and global communications that will enable us to revolutionise our business and our arts related practice while showing leadership in the museum sector and with our public.

We will set new standards of sustainability and accountability as we find innovation ways of managing our exhibition, education and engagement processes, from concept to delivery. People expect to the challenged by our programmes and we will now explore new ideas and initiatives with insight, imagination, and intelligence. We will be mindful of the Dowse’s responsibilities as a good global citizen at a time of unparalleled challenges and opportunities.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

9 Jun 2011

The Big Idea Editor

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