Peter McLeavey: A story of life in art

Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington's Cuba St always surprises on the walls and Peter always provided illuminating ruminations on the art along with discussions on other aspects of local and international culture.

Peter McLeavey, The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer
Te Papa Press
RRP $64.99

The two rooms that make up the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington’s Cuba St have always been something more than a gallery. There are always surprises on the walls and Peter always provided illuminating ruminations on the art along with discussions on other aspects of local and international culture.

When I went to Wellington the Peter McLeavey Gallery took precedence over Te Papa. No one at Te Papa could talk about art like Peter. He was as great an institution as the big museum and he deserved to have a book written about him

Jill Trevelyan has provided that book in her Peter McLeavey, The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer.

While McLeavey was not the first art dealer in New Zealand, he was the one who has made the most impact and his imprimatur was important in the development of the careers many artists.

He has been showing art for close to 50 years and is probably the one person who provides a link across the generations of art dealers, artists, collectors and curators. With no formal art history, curatorial or arts management background, he developed his own eye and way of thinking, which has had a continuing impact on New Zealand art. Trevelyan’s book captures all those links and influences in a superb account of the art dealers life.

Using the letters, diaries, sales, books and ephemera of the gallery, interviews with other dealers and artists as well as Peter McLeavey's own published articles along with articles and interviews, she has built up a superb picture of the dealer’s life and a portrait of the gallery.

The gallery itself has always seemed to present a clash of cultures in many ways. On the walls were new, interesting and often challenging artworks, yet Peter appeared to conduct his affairs in an almost mediaeval, monastic fashion. He continued to use a typewriter for most things, including typing up the catalogue list, which looked like an old gestetnered notice posted on the school notice board.

However, in many ways his gallery is an ideal place to show art work. While the walls are white as with most international galleries, the domestic scale of the rooms are the same size or smaller than the rooms that the artworks will eventually be displayed in.

While the book is about Peter, it is also about his stable of artists and many of them could be described as part of his extended family as he nurtured them and helped them develop as a mixture of father, guide and mentor.

He played these role to several penetrations of artists from his original group that included Woollaston, McCahon and Walters through the artists of the next generations such as Ian Scott, Peter Peryer and Richard Killeen to the group he represented in the 1990s -  Peter Robinson, Julian Dashper and Bill Hammond and then on to the new arts such as Yvonne Todd and Liz Maw.

So it is also a history of the development of contemporary art in New Zealand but not the traditional historical account: Trevelyan gives an account of the day-to-day difficulties of being an artist and a dealer. There is not much swanning around by either dealer or artists as they have to tackle problems and issues which are always new and ever changing.

Most of all the book paints a portrait of a man who has had a mission in life, of working with art and artists, endeavoring to provide a venue and a vision for new art and provide a platform for his artists.