14 Nov 2015

Peter McLeavey, a champion of NZ art

11:33 pm on 14 November 2015

New Zealanders are mourning the death of Peter McLeavey, one of the country's most influential art dealers, who died on Thursday night.

Peter McLeavey

Peter McLeavey Photo: Street and City Photos

Mr McLeavey set up his first gallery in Wellington in the 1960s and quickly became friends with many of the country's top artists whose work he promoted and sold, such as Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Michael Smither, Gordon Walters and Michael Illingworth.

He also encouraged the public to understand and support contemporary New Zealand artists at a time when it was not widely appreciated or accepted.

Those who knew him say he changed the landscape of New Zealand art and was a champion of its culture for more than 45 years, holding more than 560 exhibitions.

Mr McLeavey was 79 and had been battling Parkinson's Disease. His biographer Jill Trevelyan says such was his passion and dedication that even last month he was still helping hang exhibits at his Cuba Street gallery.

Taken for an exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Welington in 2009.
Peter McLeavey and his daughter, Olivia McLeavey.

Taken for an exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Welington in 2009. Peter McLeavey and his daughter, Olivia McLeavey. Photo: Richard Brimer

In the 1960s Mr McLeavey realised there was an opportunity to sell art that reflected the country's burgeoning self-identity.

"He sort of changed the landscape of New Zealand art in the latter part of the 20th Century," Ms Trevelyan said.

"He had an influence on so many lives. I really think he opened up the field of contemporary New Zealand art to so many people. He conveyed his excitement in the art and they became converts."

In 1966 Mr McLeavey started out by exhibiting art in his bedroom in his flat on The Terrace until moving two years later into the space that was to be his gallery for the next four decades at 147 Cuba Street.

"His first gallery was in his bedroom so when clients came around to look at pictures he would sweep his things under the bed, tidy up the bedspread and bring some pictures out and pop them around the walls."

He was driven by his passion for the country's contemporary art, but it wasn't until the 1970s that he actually made a profit.

"He had to move because his landlord wasn't very happy with all the people traipsing in to look at pictures... Cuba Street at the time was the red light area of Wellington, rents were cheap.

"For years he actually supported the gallery by working in a factory around the corner. In the morning he'd go along to the factory and at lunch time he'd pop into Cuba Street, exchange his overalls for his suit and tie... and then he was 'Peter McLeavey the art dealer'."

Ms Trevelyan's book Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer was the 2014 Book of the Year, beating Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.

There was never anything elitist in Mr McLeavey's approach, Ms Trevelyan said.

He was able to convey his enthusiasm for artists, such as Colin McCahon, to a wider audience.

He created a market for their work and would be remembered as a champion of that culture who opened up the art world to a cross-section of New Zealanders with his egalitarian approach, Ms Trevelyan said.

"I remember one collector telling me that when he first walked up those stairs into the Peter McLeavey Gallery and looked at the exhibition he laughed, he just couldn't believe that art could be taken seriously.

"And [yet] that man over the years became one of Peter's key collectors. Peter would just talk to people and plant a seed, plant a spark."

Peter McLeavey stand, Auckland Art Fair, 2007, showing William Dunning’s Antipodean alter 1840-1900, 2007.

Peter McLeavey stand, Auckland Art Fair, 2007, showing William Dunning’s Antipodean alter 1840-1900, 2007. Photo: Photographer unknown. Photograph from the Peter McLeavey Gallery archive (permission granted)

Dame Robin Adair White, of Ngāti Awa, is one of the country's most respected artists.

The painter and printmaker met him when she was fresh out of art school and said he was like a father figure to her.

His core principle was to reveal artists' talents.

"In a sense he was almost like a priest. He was the one who facilitated a connection between the viewer and the art... I think he saw himself in that role, as helping people to connect with what artists in this country were saying.

"I loved the atmosphere in his gallery and he was very protective of that atmosphere... the people that came and went in that gallery were incredibly diverse - the full spectrum of humanity, right down to the street people of Cuba Street.

"There were people from amongst that community that came regularly and they were welcomed in the same way as everybody else.

"I once said to Peter, 'Peter you're amazing, you talk to everybody that comes in to this gallery, I really love that'. He said, 'Robin, if it moves, I'll talk to it'. It mattered to me that my work was in a place that felt accessible to everybody."

He was pivotal to her success, she said.

"I feel so fortunate... walking into that gallery and meeting him... I couldn't have asked for a better start to a professional career outside of art school."

His wife Hilary McLeavey was the "quiet, dignified mountain" behind his achievements, she said.

Peter and Don Binney with Toss Woollaston’s Mapua (1971), 1971.

Peter and Don Binney with Toss Woollaston’s Mapua (1971), 1971. Photo: Photographer unknown.Courtesy Dominion

Luit Bieringa was the director of the National Art Gallery from 1979 to 1990.

He is also a film-maker who made the documentary The Man in the Hat, a portrait of Mr McLeavey.

Mr McLeavey helped change the way New Zealanders saw themselves, Mr Bieringa said.

"He was a catalyst in informing us about our own culture - our European culture admittedly. That was the breaking point with the past to a large extent because the more formal institutions, the more conservative institutions, were rather timid in their approach to New Zealand art at that stage."

Mr McLeavey's influence on the art scene extended to convincing major collectors to donate their works by New Zealand artists to public galleries.

Philip Woollaston, the son of painter Toss Woollaston who died in 1998, said he was saddened to hear Mr McLeavey had died.

"For over half a century he made a huge contribution to the development of modern art in New Zealand and to the careers of many of our best known artists, my father included."

Charismatic and persuasive, Mr McLeavey was known for his understated humour.

Peter McLeavey, ONZM, for services to the arts.

Peter McLeavey, ONZM, for services to the arts. Photo: gg.govt.nz

When asked by Radio New Zealand's Lynn Freeman during an interview with him and Luit Bieringa in 2009 whether it had taken a long time to decide if he would allow himself to be profiled in a documentary, his reply was typically oblique: "I needed a few weeks to think about it and then I spoke to Hilary McLeavey - my wife - and she was very encouraging about the idea and then I thought: 'It's probably a good idea because historically I've been sitting in a room in Cuba Street for 41 years', that itself is something I suppose."

Mr McLeavey's daughter Olivia took over managing the Peter McLeavey Gallery in 2011, with the aim of consolidating and expanding on the gallery's history in promoting New Zealand's art world.

Peter McLeavey (1936-2015)

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