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Avenal McKinnon: Holy moments and unwavering conviction

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Avenal McKinnon, MNZM

8 April 1949 – 12 March 2021

“Half the challenge is threshold fear” read the notes by my mother, Avenal McKinnon, on a nascent gallery opportunity, “Shed 11,” in 2005. Seeing challenge as opportunity she adds “celebrate this interesting building… skylights, brick walls, clerestory. Open the doors and glaze so that people can see into it. Doors become ‘outside landscape’.” At this point she was just beginning her tenure as the first Director of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, which she would lead until 2014. In 2010, after 20 years without a permanent home for the gallery, she would secure Shed 11 on the Wellington waterfront with a long-term lease. Dedicated to its growth, I saw her over the years sanding walls, editing catalogues deep into the night, and at one point, spreading raw silk and tassels out to sew an unveiling curtain – “sometimes you have to bring your own ceremony”. The Portrait Gallery space would evolve to be as she described it – recognisable, accessible, and visible.

A director, a curator, and an art historian, Avenal worked as she lived, steeled always by a nurturing inclusivity and a genuine interest in the success and achievement of others. A tenacious leader, a great listener, and unafraid of new territory. In 1975, a newlywed English Literature graduate from Canterbury University, she arrived in Hong Kong to accompany her diplomat husband, my father John McKinnon, on his first posting. In just over a year, having met writers seeking a platform, she organised a two-week-long poetry event, affiliated with the Hong Kong Festival of the Arts. Harry Ricketts, based in Hong Kong at the time and a participant poet, recalls her “enthusiasm and good humour corralling poets of varying degrees of ability, vanity, and performance-competence”; also, “her enjoyment of absurdity”. A witty review was published in the Hong Kong Star, carefully appraising each reader.

"Friends and Strangers" a portrait of Avenal by Wayne Youle

Avenal had compelling evangelical tendencies. This extended beyond witnessing to her faith, which she did often. When she evangelized art, it was with the same unwavering conviction of a particular truth. Art that spoke, that could be communed with, deserved a kind of reverence. As a shy boarder at Woodford House in the 1960s, Avenal encountered Frances Hodgkins’ La Premiere Communion in the dining hall. “I spent five years having every meal sitting under this painting…I felt I knew her” she wrote in the 2010 catalogue Kapiti Treasures. Upon receiving Woodford’s Tempus Award in 2018, she spoke about how formative it was to be in proximity to a great art work, even as a child.

Decades of independent thought and energy would be given to Frances Hodgkins, whom Avenal worked tirelessly to research and later collect, including curating an exhibition of her work in London in 1990. She saw an artist who was devoted to the edges of her own practice – constantly evolving, revealing, and in motion. She identified Hodgkins as a vital part of New Zealand’s canon, but also critical to the history of New Zealanders in the world. Years later she would continue her commitment to these links, joining (and travelling to meet) a network of Portrait Gallery Directors that included Sandy Nairne and James Holloway, because “they need to know that we exist.”

Seeking a Masters in Art History at the Courtauld Institute in London, Avenal inched closer to St Ives and other English sites where Hodgkins lived and worked. Her admission exam asked her to write on European masterworks. Feeling unable to, she crossed out the word "European” and replaced it with “New Zealand”. She began at the Courtauld in 1971, and took up a role at the Tate. Symbolism, the 19th century artistic movement at the core of her thesis, would come to inform her reading of artworks – what is seen, and what is sensed.

Images of my mother in London and Europe in the 1970s are a joy to look at. She is spirited and furtive, in voluminous sleeves and felt hats. Her passion for art was followed closely by passion for clothing. She adored British designers like Jean Varon, who would dress Diana Rigg on The Avengers, and Laura Ashley, who produced Victorian-style maxi dresses from her studio in Wales, hand-printed with woodblock motifs. Clothing bestowed a kind of enchantment on the wearer, she always thought, a sentiment similar to that behind collecting artworks.

My father John McKinnon with my mother, and Jonathan Mane Wheoki at right, London, March 1974.

A painting, particularly one you live with, “continually reinforces its magic over time…. you glimpse it in passing… it becomes part of your personal and family history, and the relationship with the artist’s work can also deepen”. She would cut out tiny catalogue index images of Hodgkins and Toss Woollaston to frame and place on the walls of her "Sycamore Toys” dollhouses (a company making sustainable hardwood toys she created and ran in the 90s), feeling that no home should be without art. Decades after she acquired an early stainless steel work by Ralph Hotere, hung near a window so the scored surface would dance, childhood friends would visit as adults and ask if they could see it again – still moved by their early encounters.

Holy moments, staged once and always available.

A great proponent of revelation and deferring to a work for guidance, she had both an eye and an ear for what artworks tell us. When talking about a piece, she would stand close to it, her body oriented as though in conversation, her voice low and soft. She was more serious speaking about art than most other things; a safety training we received growing up reminded us to toss paintings onto the lawn in case of fire. Working as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1994 (overseas again as diplomatic spouse) she designed a “Monarchs” tour that drew undaunted on the vast resources of the collection. She ushered fascinated groups of school children through the armour rooms and furniture chambers, even including shoes and banquet platters. She mentioned the “perspicacity” of early collector William Matthew Hodgkins (Frances’ father) in a catalogue essay; she absolutely shared the ready insight and attentive discernment that she admired in others.

In 2010, while she was still with the Portrait Gallery, a large portrait of Clayton Weatherston by Liam Gerrard garnered press and controversy when it was exhibited as an Adam Award finalist. Weatherston had been convicted of the murder of his 22 year old girlfriend in 2008, and many felt the work should be removed. A newspaper article featured a photograph of my mother standing adjacent to it with a brave expression. She felt intuitively that we should find a way to look at it. “It's the face of evil and it's horrifying that it is so ordinary."

Her support of artists, whether as curator or collector, knew no categories. Eschewing trends, she looked for natural talent and created her own associations. New discoveries brought eyes wide with delight, her advocacy both urgent and gentle. In 2010, when I had moved to a new and empty Beijing apartment in the middle of winter, she mailed me a work by Lonnie Hutchinson, a black flower, pressed between two pieces of cardboard. “She uses builders paper” the accompanying letter explained, “it’s a robust flower, and I’m sure the artist wouldn’t mind my urging you to just put it directly onto the wall. It should be lived with, and lived with immediately.”

On my father’s final posting to Beijing, 2015–2018, my mother began writing a column for Artzone. Writing with a rare combination of clarity and wonder, she made her self-consciousness in working with critique impossible to detect. These pieces became conduits for her, opportunities to learn, and she always gave the artist the upper hand. Reviewing Bill Viola’s Transformation, she described how the “viewer is achingly transported into the consuming strength of elemental forces” before entering finally, “into a dazzling brightness”.

Sophie McKinnon.

Avenal McKinnon wrote a regular “Foreign Assessment” column for Art Zone from 2015 until 2018, when she passed the mantle to her daughter Sophie. Avenal is survived by her husband John, daughter Sophie, and sons Alex and Matthew.


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