53 years of pushing art's boundaries

Last updated 12:00 10/10/2012
SOCIAL ART: Sue Garland, Jean Corbin Thomas and Margaret Knight, members of the Te Manawa Arts Society which has been going since 1959 and has collected around 1164 paintings, sculptures, etchings and prints.

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More than 50 years ago, a group of artists got together to bring Palmerston North an art gallery that would showcase local and national artists' work.

That was in 1959 and the group, then called Palmerston North Art Gallery Society, has morphed into Te Manawa Arts Society and has a collection valued at more than $5 million.

The original gallery was a leaky house on the corner of Grey and Carroll streets and when it was decided the city should have a more permanent and suitable building to house artworks, the society set to work to help raise money for the new Te Manawa art gallery.

And very successfully too.

Current Te Manawa Arts Society committee president Jean Corbin Thomas says the society raised the lion's share of funds needed for the gallery.

"We are very well-supported by the community and with sponsorship we have been able to purchase some exceptional artworks over the years."

Artists that feature in the society's collection include McMahon, Hanly and Dibble. It is classed as having one of the most exciting and extensive contemporary art collections for a provincial society in the country and every now and then a few pieces come on display as part of a wider Te Manawa exhibition.

Mrs Corbin Thomas says it is up to Te Manawa's curators what gets used and what gets loaned to other galleries or goes on tour.

"The collection is in custodial management of Te Manawa, we leave all those things up to them."

The society is led by a committee of nine people and raises funds to buy art works through events such as balls and securing sponsorship.

"It also helps Te Manawa put on events and hosts the Arts Cafe where we have focused on getting speakers and covering all arts topics."

Society membership is open to everybody and allows people to have current news on what is happening at Te Manawa and to receive invitations to openings and special events at the gallery.

In 2009 the society celebrated its 50th birthday with a book Collectively Speaking, which tells the story of the art collection and the city's art history.

High points of the society's life include the Manawatu Prize of the 1960s, which was the first contemporary art prize in New Zealand. Artists who won the prize were added to the collection, building the contemporary base.

Then there was the Gertrude Raikes Bequest that resulted in the purchase of Pacific Monarch, which has become emblematic of the gallery, and Liz Thompson's insects that crawl up the external gallery walls.

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The collection now encompasses around 1164 paintings, sculptures, etchings and prints.

One of those paintings, Bather Bending, by Pat Hanly is one of Mrs Corbin Thomas' favourites and at the time of its addition caused a lot of controversy.

Hanly won the Manawatu Prize with the oil in 1965 and the work was subject to criticism as many people felt it was too obscure for the majority to understand.

"It was pushing the boundaries quite a bit, but I love it. Another favourite of mine is Frances Hodgkins' Lady with the Beads, which was bought in the 70s at auction."

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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