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The Struggle is Real

10 May 2021
Running an art gallery that focuses on uplifting the community has been Megan Dickinson's passion - but it comes with its challenges.

When Megan Dickinson set up her eponymously named, little private commercial art gallery to raise the bar for professional standards of art in Whangarei in 2017, she expected it to be difficult. 

Everyone knows Northland is a low socio-economic region. 

But with COVID, she’s been hit particularly hard. 

“It’s been a struggle, both financially and emotionally,” says Dickinson. “When Auckland goes into lockdown, nobody visits. It instils fear. Whangarei turns into a ghost town. 

“It’s not just Auckland that shuts down. It stops people in other places from wanting to go out and spend money. 

“Everyone in Northland is doing it tough. The unfortunate thing about COVID is that it deters people from taking risks and setting up businesses. That’s understandable. 

“There are wealthy people who come here to their beautiful baches. But 90% of the time, they pass through Whangarei without stopping. I’m hoping the new Hundertwasser Museum and Wairau Art Gallery opening at the end of the year will have an impact in a positive way.”

Mission: Accessible

Her basic challenge is breaking down the barriers – that art is only for the rich or that you need to dress in a certain way to come through the door. 

Simply trying to educate people that they can come through the gallery door and not feel excluded is a big part of her role. 

“I want people to feel comfortable around art; that art is for everybody. I hope people come in here and think, ‘now I feel confident going into any gallery in another city.’”

Dickinson already feels she is making a difference.

“It’s really important that I’m here. I didn’t realise the impact I was having until after lockdown. I know I’m doing a really good job for the community and this is what I want to do. I’m passionate about the arts.” 

Opening Event for Wahine Toa, April 2021.

Far North’s ‘Far Out’ factor

One of the rewards of opening the gallery is the sense of pride it brings the community. Dickinson gets great satisfaction when a customer looks at a work and says, ‘What? This is made in Whangarei?’ 

“The gallery endorses the fact that we have professional, quality fine art up here. This is happening right here in our community. So why wouldn’t we show it here? For young people and artists, it gives them a taste of what a commercial art gallery is all about.” 

It’s also about letting people know they don’t have to go to Auckland to buy art. 

“When they come to MD Gallery, they discover there’s good quality art right here in Whangarei.”

She works hard at encouraging foot traffic and enticing new people through the gallery by constantly changing her exhibitions and promoting the turnover of art through advertising, editorials and social media channels. Dickinson now has many Auckland followers on Facebook and Instagram. 

Megan makes her mark

October 2020 Here & There - translating the Landscape group exhibition including works by (L to R) Joanna Fieldes, Christian Nicholson, Jolene Pascoe, Alan Squires, Prue MacDougall, Wes Fieldhouse, Maree Wilson, Stanley Palmer.

She recently boosted her profile by exhibiting at the annual Auckland Art Fair where she made a lot of useful connections with other art galleries. At the moment, she mainly exhibits Northland artists, but she is looking at a group show, bringing in artists from further afield.

Dickinson is very selective about the art she chooses to exhibit. 

“I’m pretty strict. The main criteria is quality and I need to be able to personally relate to the work so I can talk about it and endorse it. 

I like building a rapport with an artist. I don’t like dealing with people who are difficult. I want artists who are professional and passionate. It’s part of the artist’s education, bringing that attitude to the fore and saying, ‘it’s a profession, not just a hobby.’

“I have an open-door policy. If someone wants to show me their work, I’m happy to offer critique for those serious about trying to make art a profession.”

Dickinson selects artists’ work that gives her a broad range of price points - beginning from as low as $200 to encourage people to start an art collection with a long view. 

“When they have more money, they’ll come back and purchase from an artist they like. It’s important to create these patterns.” 

Funded by the Northland Council, Creative Northland has given Dickinson support to help artists alleviate the financial stress that comes with exhibiting. It has meant she has been able to provide them with materials and framing. She also recently received a financial package when she was named the creative industry champion for 2020 by Northlanders who gave feedback on someone who was important to the community. 

Arts angel

During COVID, she offered free online mentoring for artists in New Zealand and the US, recognised as one of The Big Idea’s Arts Angels. It was as much about keeping herself engaged with the art world and making new connections as it was helping others.  

Many who came to her were artists she had met during a European Cultural Academy course in 2019, in conjunction with the Venice Biennale. 

One of the biggest things she learned during that fortnight was that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Dickinson wants to continue her work with students and is putting together a proposal for Creative NZ to show a group of artists in Venice. 

Artist talk with Anastasia Parmson for her exhibition "My Black & White World" 2020.

With a daughter who takes art at Whangarei Girls High, she has also encouraged the involvement of the school and she is holding a show of student work later in the year. Dickinson has run a graduate programme with two or three visual art graduates from North Tec for the past two years. That’s been partially funded by North Tec but sadly, they’re not taking any more art students and the course will shut down.

“It’s a challenge, especially doing everything on your own. But I’m blessed with people who want to help. They do a day in the gallery and that’s incredible.” 

Asked what would happen to local artists if she closed her doors, Dickinson acknowledges that it would make it very difficult for the majority. 

“There are some professionals who exhibit elsewhere in New Zealand but for the others, there’s not the calibre of galleries available to show their work. These artists really enjoy it when I bring in work from around New Zealand. They get to see it in the flesh, not just on Instagram. It shows the quality that we’re offering here is equal to other places in New Zealand.”  

How to deal with dealers

For young artists in provincial areas looking to make an entry to the gallery scene, Dickinson has the following advice: 

  • Reach out to your local gallery but be prepared

  • Know what work they show an interest in and what they focus on

  • Look at the big picture and have a world view of where your work sits

  • Ask questions, discuss the work 

  • If your work isn’t accepted, continue to develop your art and keep reminding the gallery that you exist 

  • Be patient