Listener – February 17, 2001
“It’s not just a gallery, it’s something more than a gallery,” says Peter McLeavey. “I don’t quite know what a site is. I suppose it’s where something happens. I’ve never changed the walls. I’ve never done them up. I can look at these walls and I can sort of say: Billy Apple, 1976, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, Charles Tole. That’s Mike Smither. I mean every nail hole. That wall there, that’s not a wall. I mean look at all those pick marks.
“I’ve deliberately not sanded them down, because the spirit, the heart, the ideals and dreams of all the artists have bled into the walls.”
McLeavey has had his two-room gallery in Wellington’s Cuba Street since July, 1968. The second-floor gallery looks down on a cake shop and the coffee bar where Krazy Rick’s bargain emporium once flourished. The Peter McLeavey Gallery sign at street level has been bombed with graffiti. “It has been for a while,” he says. “I kinda like it, so I left it there.”
The man variously labelled as the high priest of New Zealand high art and an antipodean Andy Warhol sold Colin McCahon’s “Uncle Frank” to Te Papa for $1.75 million last year, and two of the artists he shows, Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser, are to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale later this year. He also deals in the work of Bill Hammond, one the country’s more expensive contemporary artists.
But he’ll tell you it’s not all about money and that the smallest of sales engenders excitement. He points to a Peter Black photograph he sold that morning for $185. “You have to feel for the work. You have to love the work. You have to feel enthusiastic and you want to express that love to the public. So it’s a very passionate and emotional business.”
Currently showing is Looking Back, an exhibition of 34 photographs by 30 New Zealand photographers curated by McLeavey’s friend Peter Ireland. The oldest image in the show is a photograph by Frank Hofmann of poet Helen Shaw taken in 1950, and the latest is one by Listener photographer Jane Ussher of Ilona Rodgers in the play Wit last year.
Ireland also curated a similar show for McLeavey in 1979. He is the only person other than McLeavey to choose work for the gallery in over 300 exhibitions. “I regard his taste,” McLeavey says.
Taste for McLeavey was born out of his Catholic upbringing. “My taste about life and art was formed by several factors. I was born into an Irish Catholic working-class railway culture. He was an altar boy and learned Latin. I was very much shaped by the education I had from the nuns and priests who in those days illustrated Catholic rites and history through the great masterpieces of Western art. The works of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Giotto and people known and unknown, back to the early mosaics.
“I felt as a very young child very much part of European civilisation and that was manifested to me through being brought into a devout Catholic background. The art was very much part of the thing. I didn’t go to art school or do art history. It was just part of the fabric of the culture.”
McLeavey went to Europe in the 1950s, returning in late 1962. His background then was in banking, insurance and investment. “I’ve had very good training in the nature and theory of capitalism. What is capital. At what temperature does it boil. At what temperature does it freeze.”
When he came back, he says, he had a strong feeling that he wanted to feed the culture. “I wanted to nurture and do my bit. And I had this strong feeling that it was going to be here in this room that as a man, as a human being I was going to make my stand.
“Not in Aussie, not in downtown Dusseldorf. Not going into Madrid on a Friday night, but here. There wasn’t any Prado in this neck of the woods. There wasn’t any Bayreuth on the other side up the Hutt Valley. There was no British Museum here. There was no Met here.”
The young McLeavey was inspired by the art practitioners of the time. “I was meeting men and women who were on the same wavelength as me. I mean McCahon and Michael Illingworth and Toss Woollaston and Gordon Walters and many others. And I was privileged to know other figures like Douglas Lillburn and the poets R A K Mason and James K Baxter and the early writers that lived here.
“I found them a source of inspiration. It was fantastic. I had role models. I was fed by very inspiring people. The artists were totally committed to what I did. They were well educated. They had a view of themselves and this island state and its place in the world and what we could do here. This is what we did.”
McLeavey (65 next birthday) sold his first artwork from his then flat on The Terrace in 1966: “A very fine Woollaston landscape measuring 3ft by 4ft, entitled ‘Taramakau’. It sold for 60 guineas.” In the early days he didn’t hold exhibitions and advertised in the paper. (“We’d average one person a fortnight”).
“Then a few weeks later I sold a couple of beautiful Mrkusich gouaches of the 1950s. Then some Smither. I sold a very nice Michael Illingworth. A real humdinger. Two figures in landscape with a wonderful rainbow . . . mmm . . . several McCahons.”
The first exhibition in the Cuba St rooms – one by Toss Woollaston – opened on September 4, 1968, to be followed by McCahon’s “Northland Panels” (“I think they were $3000.”) in October.
Every transaction is important, he says, but that at the heart of the business there is the private collector and the institutions. “The private collector is an individual who is driven, who yearns to possess the object. Who is fed by a deep hunger. A hunger which, I think, is based in the needs and urges which go back to almost the cot.
“There are people who will buy five, six, seven eight works a year, every year. They’re collectors. And how many are there in this country? Three, four, five maybe. Maybe there are a few more. But there are not many.
McLeavey gets poetic: “It’s almost a psychic wound to possess the object, to look at the object, to gaze at the object. The object gazes at me. We’re in a room alone. The object and I. The object consumes my heart. I possess it. It’s a form of love. It’s a form of hunger. It’s a spiritual yearning.”
The artists who exhibit here are chosen carefully. There has been no one who has come to his gallery to show slides of their work and got a show as a result. He has always sought them out. Some have had one or two shows and then they have parted company. The youngest artists he is involved with now are Auckland painters Brendon Wilkinson and Andrew McLeod.
His well-used description about his relationship with artists is worth the retelling: “The relationship between the dealer and the artist is very much like a marriage. Sometimes marriages for whatever reason fall over. Sometimes Dad doesn’t come home from work on a Friday night. Next year you get a telegram from Te Awamutu and he’s living up there somewhere.
“Sometimes you go on a blind date and you fall in love immediately. I mean it’s complicated. It’s about life. But to really do it properly, to be a dealer, you have to have a deep love and feel for the work.”
In the latest Landfall there is a poem by Ian Wedde dedicated to Peter McLeavey that ends . . .
. . . in a place with no meaning and no time
Or in a small white room which is filling slowly
With invitations written in green ink
To what are becoming increasing anniversaries
Because when you are constant this is the meaning you make:
You make time believe it exists and ends?