On 6 September, it will be exactly 100 years since Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua opened its doors.
To celebrate this milestone, we asked past gallery director Bill Milbank to share some of his favourite pieces from the Sarjeant’s enviable 8,000+ collection.
Bill Milbank, Sarjeant Gallery Director 1978-2006
I began as the exhibitions tech at the Sarjeant in 1975 having just returned from overseas. I worked in town planning, but I had always wanted to be engaged in an art related activity. I had the good fortune to be working for Gordon Brown, the first director at the Sarjeant, who was a wealth of knowledge and an excellent mentor. Following Gordon’s resignation I was appointed for a year as the acting director until the council decided to have a gallery director again. I applied and to my great surprise secured the position. I was always challenged but thoroughly enjoyed working in the magnificent Sarjeant Gallery.
Within the first week or so of starting as exhibitions technician at the gallery a Philip Trusttum exhibition arrived from the New Vision Gallery in Auckland. This was my first introduction to Trusttum’s work and I was an enthusiastic fan from that point on.
As director, one of the first exhibitions that I thought important to be done was a survey show of the work of Philip Trusttum – who was a major figure in New Zealand’s contemporary scene. I contacted Philip and he responded with great enthusiasm. Ultimately that show was a survey 1962–1979. In that process we discovered we were both born in Raetihi – him some eight years prior to me. We formed a connection that lasts until this day. He is my closest artist friend.
In bringing the exhibition together there were two works in particular, owned by Mr and Mrs Mason in Auckland, that we both felt were essential for the exhibition. They are the Persian Garden (After Bonnard) and The Battle Plan of Genghis Khan. The second is an absolute standout and, in my mind, perhaps Trusttum’s most outstanding work – a thought confirmed by the art dealer Peter Webb who felt it was a painting that he could easily place in MOMA. It comes from a series of paintings that Philip did evolving from his reading at the time about Persia and the central Middle East.
The Battle Plan of Genghis Khan is the size and scale of a Persian rug over which lines of colour and activity float. It in many ways sums up Trusttum’s ability to paint in a bold and graphic way, and yet at the same time present delicate and seductive detail. Amongst the many Trusttum’s I have now seen and admire, it remains the best. The Gallery considered it so important that at the close of the Trusttum survey exhibition tour both works were purchased from the Masons with the support of the Friends of the Sarjeant Gallery.
Having graduated out of Hornsey College of Art in London in 1979 Matt Pine returned to his home town of Whanganui. In London he had witnessed sculpture undergoing radical modernist changes and the stripping away of emotional and spiritual content. The focus of Pine’s contemporaries in London was the use of modern materials and the interest in showing the process of making. This was so different from other Māori artists practicing in New Zealand.
I developed a good working relationship with Matt and included him in a several local exhibitions. I acquired a number of his works for the Collection that in particular relate to Māori structures such as meeting houses, fortifications and canoes.
In 1981 I curated a pair of exhibitions that explored the relationship between Whanganui and the awa. One was an exhibition of photographs made by a Whanganui born photographer Anne Noble. The other was a series of aluminium works of the structures of Whanganui that have close proximity to the river, and the impact of a major flood on them. These were scattered around the floor of the Sarjeant’s front gallery and the Sarjeant itself stood complete above them on a plinth.
Gallery is created in a manner that vaguely takes the form of the Sarjeant but is as though it has inwardly exploded due to the pressure of the flooding. It’s as if the waters have poured in through the collapsed dome and are pushing out through the niches. This is one of the first of many responses to the Sarjeant itself as an object and presents Matt in a more literal and accessible way. Gallery is one of many works of Matt’s that I consider significant but it has clearly strong personal relationships with the place where I have spent close to 30 years.
In the beginning of the 1980’s I was approached by seven artists to consider an exhibition that was ultimately titled Seven Painters /The Eighties. Gretchen Albrecht was one of those, along with her husband James Ross, and Max Gimblett, Mervyn Williams, Rick Killeen, Ian Scott and Stephen Bambury – again the exhibition toured nationally. I formed a good relationship with these artists and in particular Gretchen and Jamie and purchased work from both of them. In 1986 we curated a survey of Gretchen’s work called Afternature and that exposed me to a number of different bodies of work that she had done earlier and a number of those have found their way, through gift or purchase, into the Sarjeant Collection.
While I could have chosen her magnificent Hemisphere the Fire and the Rose I have chosen instead Table Cloth with Curtains – a work which more directly demonstrates the abstracted but literal composition of a domestic environment. Her superb use of acrylic wash is wonderfully demonstrated within the work and compositionally it forms within itself a frame. Her ability as a colourist stands supreme within New Zealand art.
When you get to know an artist you have the pleasure and privilege of seeing their evolution – and this is such a wonderful example and I am pleased that in 1990 we had the resource to purchase it.
Sarjeant on the Quay, Whanganui
Opens 7 September