The fine art of creating a gallery

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By John Keast

Richard Conway feels proud as he strolls through the fine art and wide spaces of the Ashburton Art Gallery.

It is not for his efforts – though they are great – but for the community.

“When I walk around I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction for the community that they have this amenity.”

He says the gallery is the envy of towns across New Zealand.

Mr Conway is in a position to know.

He is a painter – an indifferent water colourist, he says – but was instrumental decades ago, with others, in getting a gallery for Ashburton.

Nearly 25 years ago, Mr Conway, artist, art lover and travel agent, was part of a group that included Susan Wall (later Thomas).

“She suggested Ashburton should have an art gallery. Her mates thought it was a good idea and we started to get things under way.

“We got alongside the museum group, which included Michael Hanrahan, and built up a relationship. We went to the (Ashburton) council and said the building in Baring Square (the old county building) would suit and we could move in there.”

Mr Conway said that, with the help of then mayor Murray Anderson, things took shape.

A committee of two gallery representatives, two museum representatives and four councillors got together, advice was sought from Christchurch on the “finer points” of creating a gallery and museum.

He said Mr Hanrahan – later the museum curator, and now retired – put together a funding application that lottery officials rated as one of the best they had seen.

Mr Hanrahan said a group called the Arts Centre Association was set up by Susan Wall.

An architect firm, Synaxon, was employed to find a suitable place for a gallery and it found seven possible sites.

The county building was top of the list.

On the fundraising, Mr Hanrahan recalls he took a week off work and spent all that time working on the application.

And so the upstairs of the building became the gallery, with the museum downstairs.

Fast forward, and Ashburton now has a new facility.

Mr Conway, who has just retired as patron of the Art Gallery Society (replaced by Don McLeod), said it was a wonderful facility, with plenty of visitors (almost double its council target), plenty of parking and in a good location on the highway.

Moreover, Mr Conway thinks there is potential for tour bus customers if so many did not turn inland at Rakaia.

Before the new gallery, and the old, Ashburton had no art scene as such.

Now it is vibrant – with children seeing the best of local, national and international talent.

Mr Conway – who says he now has time to paint, not relying on snatched Sundays when he ran his business – said a key part of the gallery’s success was its staff.

“We have the right people on.”

Mr Conway said it was interesting to hear a retiring councillor say he had not supported the project – but was a fan now.

He said that, as patron, he found it “a challenge” to hear the doubters as the new gallery was planned.

“It takes time to convince people.”

Mr Conway said that though he had stood down as patron, he would not be a stranger to the gallery and art.

“I will be a regular visitor here. It will always be a part of my life.

“The amenities here in Ashburton are extensive, yet we don’t have the traffic pressure.

“I’d never want to leave.

“It’s a great town to be in.”