Back in the 1970s, when the original Dowse Art Museum was built in Petone, suburban Wellington, New Zealand was a fairly conservative place. Art galleries hung little more than paintings, and those were usually fairly conformist in style. But during the 70s the country was slowly opened like a can of sardines to some new ways of thinking, and some of those ideas involved art.
It wasn’t that thoughtful, innovative, sometimes daring art and craft wasn’t being produced in New Zealand. It was – in rustic rural and hidden city studios there was some excellent art, pottery and ceramics, textiles and multi-media installations being created. They just needed somewhere that would show them. Enter the Dowse. With its focus on craft and design it provided a fertile ground for showing creative art.
It’s an easy 15-20 minute drive by rental car around the Wellington waterfront to Petone; there’s free parking nearby and paid parking at the gallery. The original building was fairly brutal with its solid concrete block construction and modernist style. In 2006 the gallery was completely revamped by well-known Wellington architect, Ian Athfield, incorporating strong environmental ethics and design elements. The ‘Rainscreen’ panels on the exterior are an art work that also help to regulate the effects of the weather on the building. The Rock Store is a large thermal store of Wairarapa river rocks installed beneath the gallery cafe which helps to regulate the temperature and reduce energy costs.
The gallery now has 11 exhibition spaces which house continually changing exhibits; many of them are free to view. At any one time you may see pottery, photography, sculpture, mixed media, video and geometric artworks, usually with a strongly contemporary theme. There are regular children’s activities and an upstairs Lounge where kids can take some quiet or creative time.
Probably the most treasured exhibit at the Dowse is Nuku Tewhatewha, a pataka or storehouse once used by Maori for food storage. This beautiful taonga (treasure) was built and carved in the 1850s to show support for the Kingitanga movement. It is the only remaining one of the seven built at the time. The Kingitanga movement helped establish the position of a Maori monarch, equal in status to the English queen of the colonising pakeha.