The Early Days - The History of the Friends

The Early Days

An extract from the Timaru Herald on 20 May 1975 reads… “Should a ‘Friends of the Art Gallery’ Committee be formed in Timaru to foster interest in the Aigantighe Art Gallery?”

At a meeting of the Timaru City Council’s art gallery committee held on 19 May 1975, the gallery director, Mr A G Manson, and a member of the committee, said the idea should be discussed. He also said he would not like to see it in competition with the South Canterbury Arts Society, but as a group to foster interest in the gallery. Mr G R Milward, president of the Arts Society said he saw the two organisations as having different purposes and members could belong to both groups.

Was this the first little seed that was nourished and eventually grew into the Friends of Aigantighe – still going strong and very active forty years later? Thanks to the gallery staff and volunteers, scrapbooks of newspaper articles were kept from 1975. These give good accounts of the many activities of the gallery and Friends. As well as reports of Aigantighe openings, Friends’ meetings were also reported. Openings and activities at the gallery were advertised in the Timaru Herald so the general public were aware of what was happening and the involvement of Friends.

A steering committee was set up chaired by Mr E R McKenzie and a special function was held at the gallery on Friday, 7 May 1976 with an exhibition of African Arts and original brass rubbings – and sherry would be served! A letter from the Mayor, Mr C R Hervey accompanied the notice of meeting in which he acknowledged the benefactors of the late Mr and Mrs James Grant of Grey’s Hills Station who presented their historic family home, Aigantighe, to the community.

He stated “… a steering committee has been appointed to form The Friends of Aigantighe Art Gallery as an organisation to assist in promoting the interests of the gallery and to provide general support with exhibitions, lectures and other cultural activities.” Membership subscriptions were set at $2/ordinary, $3/husband/wife, $4/family and $8/institutional. Inflation has impacted considerably since then!

On 7 August 1976, a permanent committee of Friends of the Aigantighe Gallery was formed with over 300 members. The purpose of the Friends would to arrange social functions, actively support the gallery by stimulating interest in exhibitions and the gallery, and assist with the purchase art works.

The officers elected to the first committee were:
Chairman – Dr E R McKenzie
Secretary – Mr G J Instone
Committee – Mesdames L M Heads, H Hill, M J Parker and Messrs P D Lowe, A C Marshall, A G Manson, J C Oddie, J B Wilson

Friends quickly became involved in social events at the gallery providing hospitality at selected gallery openings, and had been looking forward to the new extension allowing more space for socialising. It hasn’t been easy to differentiate between gallery openings or Friends’ openings, but like the present day, everyone was involved. Membership kept increasing year to year and had reached over 500 in 1978 and 594 in 1979, when subscriptions were increased by $1 each membership. Those early members were also required to pay 50c to attend openings and defray expenses – but sherry was out and wine was in!

Critics beware! The newspaper heading read “Craft Exhibition Disappoints”. A number of Friends, in support of a pottery and weaving exhibition in 1980, didn’t hesitate to put pen to paper following ‘negative and inconsistent’ comments and questioning the qualifications and knowledge of the critic, and between them were able to provide a more balanced report on the exhibition. Friends also decided this year to launch a campaign to solicit support from major companies in the form of donations to the group’s funds, purchases of works of art, or financial assistance in bringing exhibitions to Timaru. A report was presented to the cultural committee of the Timaru City Council by Mr D McBride. He told the committee Friends would allocate $150 year towards restoration and preservation of works owned by the gallery.

At the 1981 it was reported that Friends had been able to purchase with the help of the Timaru City Council, a stereo system and chairs for the gallery. Friends also expressed concern at the lack of any permanent trained assistant or exhibitions officer. Music was introduced to the gallery in September with a Music at Five recital by Hans and Margaret Van Swaay, and Lynn McFarlane, respectively on the violin, clarinet and piano.

But optimism and fundraising didn’t always go hand-in-hand, and unfortunately, in 1982 the Friends were forced to return a water colour by NZ painter Alfred Sharpe because they could not raise enough funds to pay for it. The painting had been offered to the Friends for $7,000. A public appeal had raised $4,500 but a request for $2,500 to the Timaru District Council was turned down. Friends were determined that eventually they would have sufficient funds to have one of Alfred Sharpe’s watercolours in the gallery.


The First Gift by the Friend’s of Aigantighe

At the AGM held on 30 June 1977, it was decided to commission a bronze sculpture called ‘Study from Life’. Some months previously the Friends were offered on loan a plaster figure study by Francis A Shurrock one of New Zealand’s leading sculptors, and owned by Mr F C W Staub. It was decided to have a bronze sculpture cast from the plaster figure. A quote of $1,000 was proposed from the Melbourne firm of Vittoria and Fernando Art Foundry, and a public fundraising drive quickly got under way to meet the costs of freight and insurance. By this time there were now over 400 members.

The model who posed for the sculpture came from a family of models. Her younger brother was the model for the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens in London. Francis Shurrock’s health was affected during his life from the effects of chlorine gas attacks during WWI and he was advised to move from London to a healthier climate overseas, prompting his move to Christchurch in New Zealand.

At the 1978 AGM, Mr E R McKenzie, the retiring president commented on the gifts and donations received by Friends to purchase works of art including the commission of the bronze sculpture, to present to the Aigantighe collection. The sculpture was completed and presented at the Opening of the Aigantighe Art Gallery extension and the NZ Premier of the Kelliher Retrospective Art Exhibition on 9 September 1978 on 9 September 1978 by Sir Henry R Wigley KBE.