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Countenances count

What motivates people to buy portraits without any family or personal connection to the sitter? Craig Beardsworth considers the collection of Avenal McKinnon, and the interest in portraiture that dominates it.

Friends and Strangers, a portrait of Avenal by Wayne Youle

In June The New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Kupenga Whakaata mounts its first exhibition dedicated to a single collector – Tribute: Portraits from the collection of Avenal McKinnon (1949–2021). McKinnon collected art for 50 years. In more recent years she concentrated on acquiring portraiture, undoubtedly influenced by her nine years at the the helm of the NZPG (2005–2014). Her directorship was not her only motivator.

I had the good fortune to visit Avenal at her art-filled home, where she gave a talk on Frances Hodgkins (she was a noted Hodgkins scholar). She was happy to be diverted into talking enthusuastically about other artists on the walls, making connections from these treasures to New Zealand art history and wider historical events. Her daughter Sophie writes about her collecting habit in the exhibition catalogue: “My mother collected artworks like friends – with delighted enthusiasm and warm attentiveness. No work ever stood alone, and was often linked by history, association, or story to another. Portraits were like extended family members. They inhabited different rooms in the house, and went abroad with us when we lived overseas.”

Tribute curator Helen Kedgley suggests the McKinnons’ interest in portraits was sparked early, “Maybe growing up with Goldie and Lindauer portraits in the house helped, or sitting for portraits as a child – perhaps it planted the seed”. One of those childhood portraits is in the exhibition, Rudi Gopas’ Portrait of Avenal 1955. The six-year-old sits demurely, with rosy cheeks, puffed-sleeve blue dress, and blue ribbons in her hair. Avenal went on to acquire Gopas’ self-portrait, exhibiting one of her motivations, an inclination to complete the circle connecting the personal and the historical.

Kedgley doesn’t think portraiture is an inherently difficult genre to collect – it’s just a matter of considering quality rather than subject. For instance, “The magnificence of a Rita Angus speaks for itself”. From infancy we instinctively focus on the human face, and we find faces in intimate objects as adults. “From Andy Warhol to our own Wayne Youle, artists will always create portraiture – they are drawn to it – to capturing people,” says Kedgley. Perhaps we will always be inclined to muse on what’s going on behind the eyes in a portrait, whoever is the subject.

Janet Paul, Portrait of the McKinnon children, 1992

Current NZPG director Jaenine Parkinson thinks McKinnon was not straightforwardly drawn to quality “She wanted to support the careers of certain artists that she loved, especially if they were emerging like Nick Cuthell, Freeman White, and Irene Ferguson. She would often collect New Zealand artists and would act on her instinct for the quality of the work.”

During her tenure at NZPG, Avenal encouraged donations, bequests, and sponsorship, fundraising to buy or commission specific works; and she personally donated works to the gallery’s collection. Her wish was that the institution should complement Te Papa Tongarewa in defining who New Zealanders are and recording where we have come from. Parkinson says, “For her, the role of a portrait gallery was essential to give a human dimension to a country’s heritage, with portraits a powerful tool to visually build and maintain an understanding of our national identity.”

As director, McKinnon expanded the permanent collection from six works to over 200 – testament to her tenacity and determination to create a national resource, and a resounding endorsement of the power of portraiture and its worthiness to be collected and cherished.

Tribute runs 16 June 11 September.

First published in Art Zone #91

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