Early Days, Early Roots
Hawke's Bay's sense of self has always been strong.
That identity has, at various times, been shaped by the Mechanics Institute (1859), the Athenaeum (1865), the Philosophical Society (1874), the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts (1924). These are the ancestors of today's Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery whose rich history is peppered with larger-than-life legends and heroic, colourful characters.
Augustus Hamilton’s strengths were in Maori taonga and ethnography. He later founded the Colonial Museum (now Te Papa) but had his first experience with museum collections in Hawke’s Bay.
William Colenso transcended his skills in botany and natural history to be recognised as a man of real intellectual distinction. He was a central figure in the Philosophical Society, an early incarnation of HBMAG.
"We began with no income and experience but with plenty of ideas and ambitions." Leo Bestall
Out of the devastation of the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake came a heightened desire to create a fitting home for the artefacts and stories of its combined heritage. In 1936, in spite of a worldwide depression, the Hawke's Bay community raised enough money to build the first section of the Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery, and Leo Bestall became the Museum's first director.
Leo Bestall trained as an architect but instead became a draper and the driving force in the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts. This, coupled with his strong sense of community and his belief in the Museum, meant the HBMAG was built on firm foundations. Amidst the ruins the earthquake left behind, Bestall created a magnificent vision through which people could express their hopes for the future.
The first rooms of the new museum opened in 1936, and under Bestall's directorship the Museum's collections grew rapidly. The gifting of three significant collections – the McLean collection, the Graecen Black collection, and the Williams family Waipare collection – and a loan collection from the estate of Ngati Kahungunu paramount chieftainess Airini Donnelly, contributed to this growth. Bestall spoke of feeling HBMAG was ‘a full museum in the miniature’, yet by 1940 he had defined the main focus of the Museum: New Zealand and British art and history.
Soon HBMAG's position was solidified by a series of generous bequests and Leo Bestall's reputation was recognised internationally. He spearheaded the construction of the McLean Gallery in 1937, the Gwen Malden Gallery in 1954, and the Holt Gallery in 1959. One month before the last of these opened, Leo Bestall died.
Leo Bestall's legacy is still apparent at HBMAG. Bestall shaped the collections and defined the overall focus. He introduced a fuller range of experiences for all visitors such as using the Malden Gallery as a concert hall and introducing the first Children's Museum. For Bestall, it was vital HBMAG never acted like a ‘small museum’. He travelled the world and brought back art and artefacts to make sure Hawke's Bay had the very best of both. Under the stewardship of one of New Zealand's leading museum directors HBMAG's professionalism, education and the collections themselves blossomed.
"Each museum has a personality and that personality should be pervasive." James Munro
As with many museums, HBMAG's collections have been shaped by the personality of its directors. When Leo Bestall died in 1959, the Museum gained a new director in James Munro, and his personal passions began to add to the strengths of HBMAG. Ceramics were his chief focus, and although he concentrated his art-buying efforts on the local, his ceramic purchases gave the Museum a fully international collection. Munro was a great supporter of the emerging New Zealand crafts movement and the work of local applied artists in particular.
Rather than relying on static collections, Munro introduced temporary exhibitions to HBMAG. For this reason, limited works were purchased under Munro's stewardship. During the 60s and 70s, two-thirds of the display space in HBMAG was given over to art exhibitions rather than collection-based material.
Munro began his long association with HBMAG as a volunteer while Bestall was Director. He came from a background of engineering and administration rather than museology. It was his passion that led him to become an influential personality in the life of the Museum. His directorship was very different to that of Bestall’s but they shared an unrelenting belief in the role of museums within communities.
James Munro’s dedication to the broader role of HBMAG led to the building of the Century Theatre, named for the centennial of the city of Napier. Designed by leading Hawke’s Bay modernist Guy Natusch, the Century Theatre has played a key role in HBMAG and in the region, acting as both concert hall and cinema.
"We are creating a voice for New Zealand - one that speaks of where we’ve come from and where we’re going." Douglas Lloyd Jenkins
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins became Director of HBMAG in 2006. He brought with him a broad understanding of New Zealand social history, sense of place and identity, a knowledge of art, design and architecture, and a passion for those who have contributed, currently and historically, to the New Zealand aesthetic. He also brought big ideas and an expansive vision.
Douglas’ directorship has been characterised by extensive, unusual and eclectic exhibitions. "It’s not enough to simply collect and display artefacts – the visitor’s experience must be something more. It is vital collections receive the setting they deserve and are shown in interesting ways that say something."
His clever mind and wealth of experience, as well as the team of experts he has assembled at HBMAG, allow Douglas to put together exhibitions which make real statements about culture, society and heritage.
Where other museums have bought "all the right things", prestigious items they are obliged to show, HBMAG is not constrained in that way. Here is a museum that uses every opportunity to mix art and objects, creating much richer, more complex conversations about the future of New Zealand thinking.
Douglas believes it is because of its size, rather than in spite of it, that HBMAG succeeds. "We secure major exhibitions before other museums because we can see trends, predict themes and respond quickly. It’s not luck; we do the research and we’ve got the experience. And we follow the obvious investment rule: get in early, buy well, maximise potential."
HBMAG is more than just an art gallery or a museum, it is realising Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ vision of becoming a centre of thought-leadership through symposiums, conferences, film programmes, talks and debate.
Today HBMAG embodies much of what its forefathers wanted it to be. It’s William Colenso’s home of ideas, Leo Bestall’s "full museum in the miniature", Augustus Hamilton’s keeper of local taonga, James Munro’s collector of New Zealand applied arts and crafts. And alongside this rich history, HBMAG is a trend-spotter, adroit at reinvention: responsive, smart-thinking and worldly.