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Gaining Critical Mass

Don Driver Shoe Horn date unknown Mixed media Collection of The Dowse Art Museum. Gift of James Mack.
Rohan Wealleans Aqua Bike Stand 2001 Paint Jim Barr and Mary Barr loan collection Dowse Art Museum
Don Driver Log Piece 1978 Mixed media Collection of The Dowse Art Museum. Purchased 1978, with the assistance of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of NZ.
Critical Mass
Public art collections allow galleries to speak from the heart, writes Mark Amery.


By Mark Amery

In an age of worship of private ownership, the value of public art collections in this small, young country is easily overlooked. The Dowse’s current suite of exhibitions emphasise the value of such public resources in many different clever ways.

Even the absence of Teresa Margolles’ planned Festival work for this programme - due to the contamination it threatened a centrepiece of the Dowse’s collection, pataka Nuku Tewhatewha – adds to this discussion

No matter its era, the best art in a public collection will somehow still feel vital and contemporary, expressing a complexity of feelings about its time, sparking off powerful reactions. A public art collection is the equivalent of a home’s front living room. A set of objects, constantly rearranged and added to, provides a shared memory bank charging us up for the future. Visit the new Auckland City Art Gallery and its still the collection you make your way through first. Here at Te Papa we unfortunately have the reverse, the collection housed in the building’s upper reaches.

At the Dowse a new team has settled, which as it should sees an appraisal of the collection in their guardianship - an opening up of the boxes in the attic, and a making of new sense out of their contents.

Alongside attention to jewellery with Cluster, an exhibition of jewellers’ the museum has actively collected the work of over the past ten years, The Dowse also continues to find new ways to relate its collection to young people. Can You See What I See encourages all ages to go on a hunt for different stories and images amongst a historically diverse range of works, plus imaginatively describe in writing what they see in the art with pens next to it. Of interest to me in this show are a range of older unfamiliar modern work, from a gorgeous svelte black Hotere painting from 1969, to a cubist Melvyn Day from 1950 in which a flower appears to open out into a piano. 

The title of Emma Bugden’s collection show Critical Mass expresses neatly the value of collections. Mass isn’t just created by temporarily bringing together things, it accumulates over time as energy and value attaches itself to them. This is a smart, good-looking show with a focus on artists’ playful assemblage of found objects and icons. The exhibition in this way also demonstrates the importance of artists’ own collecting instincts with the poetic art born of the critical mass of their own collections, from Rohan Wealleans’ collection of dried paint to Richard Killeen’s shapes.

At its centre are works by Don Driver, who passed away last year. Illustrative of how fresh they remain (they are from the 1970s and 80s), Driver’s assemblages of industrial and domestic objects speak easily of the poisoning of the land and our consumptive selves. Not all speak strongly to me, yet Driver is never didactic. There is a magic to his surreal poetic combinations - a pair of goat horns curling out of old shoes.

The surprise pearler amongst the Drivers is a set of hewn pine logs held within a rusted steel platform. A rusted chain that might have been used to drag them out of the bush provides a necklace. As public pillar sculpture it’s an eloquent memorial and totem to the forest we have felled and the strength of those who have contained it. 

Dark magic conjured from assortments of ordinary things also marks strong poetic works by Lauren Lysaght, Lilian Budd and Simon Denny. A refreshing amount of excellent humour about art’s usefulness also marks out this show - from Wealleans labeling of a cut ball of caked paint a bike stand to Mikala Dwyer attaching an axe to the wall (in case of emergencies?) with plasters.

Without the attentions of public conservators how many of these works would have survived? Left to private collection could we quickly bring together celebrations of the work of the recently deceased? The Dowse here recognises the museum has a public voice, responding to the events that occur around it. It is able to do so from the heart a collection provides.

Critical Mass, until 17 June Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt

Written by

Mark Amery

26 Apr 2012

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.