Jenny Harper

Jenny Harper
Christchurch Art Gallery

There is much to celebrate with the opening of Art School 125 and the launch of this website. 

For one thing, it is an important and exciting way to underscore a relationship between the Christchurch Art Gallery and the University of Canterbury. It is evident to all involved in research how crucial it is to build and maintain active partnerships. The 125th anniversary of the opening of the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts has provided a particular opportunity to co-operate and it gives us great pleasure to display the results of our work – not only to visitors to the Gallery’s physical spaces, but also to those who can most easily join us via the website. Despite a short lead time, much has been achieved.

The history of the Gallery and the university intersect in several intriguing and notable ways. For instance, had the university’s intention in the 1920s to build a new School of Fine Arts on the corner of Montreal and Gloucester streets not been thwarted by the Depression, the present site of the Christchurch Art Gallery may not have been available when we also went in search for more adequate space seventy or so years later. 

All our current curators are graduates of the art school – three in art history and one from the studio programme. For many years art history lecturers have contributed to Gallery projects as curators, writers and speakers; students regularly come to the Gallery to see the works they are studying and to use our archives. Gallery curators have drawn frequently on the research produced by the school’s staff and graduates and vice versa.  Most of the work in this exhibition is from the Gallery’s own collections, and reveals the strength of our interest in the artistic production of the art school’s staff and students.

Art School 125 is not the first time the Gallery has mounted an exhibition to draw attention to the achievements of the school. In 1982 recently retired Gallery senior curator Neil Roberts, an alumnus of the studio programme, developed a show for the Robert McDougall Art Gallery to celebrate the school’s centenary. It focused on historical painting and sculpture, and included only a handful of recent graduates. The current project focuses more strongly on the work of living artists, and includes film and graphic design as well as painting, sculpture, printmaking and installation art. With larger spaces now available to us, this exhibition has greater scope, enabling the inclusion of some 135 artists (instead of 67 in the Canterbury College School of Art Centenary Celebrations 1882-1982 exhibition in 1982).

Nevertheless, the current exhibition is neither comprehensive nor definitive. Curators have chosen work by a large range of artists of regional, national and international significance, but – although some nice surprises emerge with the inclusion of less well-known artists – the physical dictates of space inevitably limit the range of work we could show.

The final selection charts some major strands in the school’s history, ranging from its early Arts and Crafts influences to the growth of film as an independent discipline in the 1970s. There has been an explicit interest in various ‘waves’ of influential peers who have appeared in the school every couple of decades, including those searching for a new expression of national identity in the 1930s (William Sutton, Rita Angus, Rata Lovell-Smith, Olivia Spencer Bower); the mid-century modernists who flatted together at 22 Armagh Street’s ‘little Bohemia’ during the 1950s (John Coley, Quentin Macfarlane, Pat and Gil Hanly, Trevor Moffitt, Hamish Keith); the interest in expressionism which resulted from Rudolf Gopas’s example and teaching (Philip Clairmont, Tony Fomison, Phillip Trusttum); and the artists who went through the art school in the late 1980s, and whose work reflects interest in issues of personal and cultural identity (Shane Cotton, Peter Robinson, Séraphine Pick, Tony de Lautour).

This online publication includes many interviews with graduates of the school, from the 1930s to the present day,  about their experience as students. It is fascinating that most reveal the great importance placed by artists on the influence of their peers in the learning process.

Finally, it is clear that this is a work in progress. The many people involved in the exhibition share a sense of the urgency for a more extensive history that adequately captures the memories of our senior artists and assesses the school’s lasting contribution to New Zealand art. In the meantime, we invite contributions to the website to further our collective knowledge about the school and its impact.

I am very grateful to co-ordinating curator, Lara Strongman, for her wonderful ability to move between both groups of staff and ensure that all eyes were fully focused on the realisation of this project.

Professor Desmond Rochfort

Professor Desmond Rochfort
Head of School
School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury

Anniversaries are always occasions for reflection, opportunities to gather together from the storehouse of the past moments and periods that have been written down and captured in visual form. When combined to form a narrative, they help us to understand both the past and the future. Art School 125 offers us such a narrative, a unique event that displays the diverse creativity that has been nurtured over many decades by the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury.

The School of Fine Arts was founded during a period that saw the establishment of many similar institutions in other Commonwealth countries and in North America. Few, however, can claim, over the course of their history, the same close and enduring relationship with their local and national communities. And still less can they claim the same degree of impact in contributing towards and sustaining a nation’s artistic heritage and modern visual culture. This achievement rests in part on the fact that, although not the oldest art school in the country, Canterbury holds the distinction of having run continuously for the longest period, surviving two world wars, the austerity of the Depression years and many decades without a permanent home, until its purpose-built premises opened at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus in 1979.

As a result, the school has developed close ties to the New Zealand arts community and especially to the city of Christchurch and its surroundings. In many of the high schools in the city, and in the greater Canterbury region, art and design are taught by graduates of the School of Fine Arts. And the work, writing and ideas of those who have studied at the school and those who have had the privilege of teaching there, can be seen in galleries, journals and magazines throughout New Zealand, and beyond.

Today, like many other art schools established at a similar time, the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury stands at a crossroads. Behind it is a past of which we at the school, and our many supporters and friends, can be justly proud. Ahead lies a world in which the creative visual languages of art and design have never been more important. Art School 125 allows us all to look back and acknowledge the school’s many and significant achievements. Importantly, it also allows us to reflect on the future and the unquestionable ability of the school, with the support of its surrounding communities, to continue its great creative contribution to our national culture.