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Above the highly convenient liquor store on Cuba Street sits one of the oldest and most influential art dealer galleries in New Zealand. The only hint of its presence from the street is the word GALLERY next to a classy advert for Woodstock. Even though I’ve dragged many friends up the winding stairs on various artistic missions (sometimes to try convert the cynical), when I visited the Peter McLeavey Gallery only a few weeks ago I still went up one flight of stairs too many and struggled to find the doorway. This cryptic location is just the beginning of the magic.
The first time I ever met Peter McLeavey, my mum had led a 16-year-old me up the stairs to see a Richard Killeen exhibition. Peter was sitting in a wooden chair with white hair, red glasses and a great hat, and chatted to us about the artist’s new venture into digital production of art. I distinctly remember feeling like a fully included member of the conversation, not brushed off as my mother’s sidekick. With an award-winning biography and documentary in his name, Peter McLeavey is one of the most renowned contributors to New Zealand’s art scene. I was there to have a chat to his daughter Olivia McLeavey, who has been running the gallery since 2011 when Peter moved into semi-retirement. “You would have experienced him in his prime,” Olivia tells me.
When I first arrived, Olivia was explaining the presence of a white jet plane embedded in the old white mouldings of the ceiling to a pair of foreign visitors—“we always actually have a two person show, you see Brendon Wilkinson [NZ artist] stuck it on with superglue and we’ve never got it down.” The industrial plane is a subtle quirk in the otherwise understated and whitewashed rooms. I’d never noticed it before but wasn’t surprised. The gallery is exactly this mix of the unconventional and traditional.
Olivia tells me the only modification to the gallery since Peter bought the space in 1968 is some new carpet with a slightly different pattern (which apparently only happened after a significant amount of persuasion on her part). Even the single green chaise couch under the window has been there from the very beginning. Considering the gallery has run over 500 exhibitions in 50 years, this is impressive. I comment on how light the space is, even though it’s so overcast. Through the high windows, an impressive amount of natural light floods the two rooms. Apparently even on a raging Saturday night, with students scoping out BYO wine directly below, the gallery’s peace remains undisturbed.
We had just set ourselves up on some wooden chairs when a man walked in saying he’d seen an ad in the Dominion Post. “Everything is for sale,” Olivia tells him. “If you see it, it’s for sale.” He asks about the Robin White works that line the walls around us, and Olivia tells their stories. An early print leaning against the wall was once borrowed off Peter for the set of Close to Home (a child of the 90s, this was a bit lost on me, but apparently the show was the precursor to Shortland Street). “When we talk about the work, we tell the story,” Olivia says—the story of the artist, the work’s subject matter and its history. This print features an elderly woman in front of rolling hills in Dunedin. The man and Olivia agree that she looks proud and thoughtful.
After he’s left, we talk about the constant stream of people walking through the door. “You never know who is going to come into the gallery,” Olivia says. From celebrities to politicians to locals off Cuba Street, the gallery’s visitors are always diverse and often unexpected. She casually drops Cate Blanchett’s name. Frequently it’s “big shots” from Auckland scoping out art to make money. The gallery, however, refuses to sell works to people with these intentions because they want the art to go to good homes (“you get so over the fat cat clients”). It’s refreshing and reassuring to hear.
Peter first started trading art from his flat on the Terrace in 1966, when the “art market” didn’t really exist. Upon returning to Wellington from overseas, where his exposure to Europe had engendered a new enthusiasm for fostering New Zealand culture, Peter struck up a friendship with artists Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon after expressing interest in selling their paintings. Olivia recounts a story about a recent visit by a long-standing client who told her about the first time he bought a work from Peter. “He was 21 and his prospective father-in-law saw an ad in the paper for Dad selling Colin McCahon on the Terrace. They turn up and Dad pulls the McCahons out from under his bed and starts showing them to these guys… the 21-year-old is now 65 and still a client and did mention the other day that it was perhaps not the best practice.” The paintings were avant garde and strange at the time, when the simplicity of McCahon’s style didn’t match the way art was valued. But then, Peter’s success rests significantly on an eye for talent and originality, even at times when they may not have matched New Zealand’s general vibe.
A couple wander in both wearing fantastic hats and holding a map of the “Cuba Art Quarter”, which features the locations of small galleries in the area. They tell us about how they travel around New Zealand every year as part of an art group and had visited the gallery before, “when Peter was here”. We talk about Bill Hammond’s work on the wall behind me. It’s painted in green paint directly onto linen. Olivia recalls asking Bill if it was difficult; once you make a mistake there’s no going back. He explained that having done nothing but paint for a living since the age of seven, it isn’t so much of a problem for him. Just before they leave, Olivia points to the Robin White print and asks “Do you know the show Close to Home?” The woman describes her as looking tired.
There’s a typewriter on the dresser. “That typewriter is a core part of this business,” Olivia told me as she pulled out a piece of green metallic flimsy papery-stuff from the dresser. I had seen carbon copy maybe twice in my lifetime and stared at it blankly. Olivia stuck a piece of official Peter McLeavey Gallery paper and carbon copy in the typewriter then typed up my name and address. “What’s your favourite New Zealand artist?” That’s a hard question, I like a lot of them. “Let’s go with Yvonne Todd, since she’s showing here… so say you buy… for $25,000 [someday….]” She reassures me the lack of a signature or bank details means I won’t suddenly find my bank account depleted. I crack a lame, wistful joke about my student loan. The piece of paper is now taped up on my bedroom wall, kind of like a hopeful artwork in itself.
Apparently when Peter would make a mistake on these invoices, such as typing your name wrong, instead of redoing the letter “like most professionals” he’d just get out a green fountain pen, scratch out the mistake and rewrite it so you’d end up with an invoice covered in green handwritten notes. Peter has Parkinson’s Disease, and one of the hardest consequences is the effect it has on his ability to write and talk to clients. The day before my visit, someone had dropped in a collection of photographs taken on Cuba Street in the 80s. There’s a photo of Peter at the opening for a leather boutique with his eyes half-closed talking to a biker dude. “So there’s all these guys in leather and Dad turns up in a tuxedo looking like Andy Warhol,” Olivia says. She shows me handwritten letters to clients from two years ago and the beautiful exhibition registers, still carefully inked in red books in blue and black pen. With no formal art history or curatorial training, Peter is first and foremost a salesman. Many of the processes and systems still used by the gallery stemmed from Peter’s experience as an auditor in banking and insurance, before he jumped ship and sailed to Europe.
Many of the artists have had long-term core relationships with McLeavey, such as Richard Killeen since the 80s and Bill Hammond from the 70s. Yet Olivia recognises the importance of keeping an eye out for talent in the next generation and to support the projects of younger emerging artists. She describes it as a great freedom to be able to “follow people” and support original and innovative work. A diptych by Yvonne Todd, a contemporary photographer who had a retrospective at City Gallery last year, is currently dominating the wall opposite the entrance. Four days after Todd won the Walters Prize, the most competitive contemporary art prize in New Zealand, she had her first show at the McLeavey gallery. “Dad has always had an uncanny knack for timing,” Olivia says. “Needless to say he sold the show out.”
As the new leader of the gallery, Olivia’s mission is to respectfully build upon the rich history and weighty reputation of the gallery while keeping it contemporary. Last year she set up a pop up gallery on Webb Street in an industrial space very different to these two rooms. The project was entirely of her own creation including the curation, promotional material and the lease. Initially she had refused her dad’s suggestion of working in the gallery. At the time she had a high paying media job in London and the idea of coming back to Wellington was not quite as appealing. Upon returning to New Zealand she worked as the weekend girl at a dealer gallery in Auckland’s Herne Bay. Her clientèle was a very different batch to that of Cuba Street.
When Peter offered her the management position for his gallery again, the timing finally felt right and she accepted—“it’s after all my flesh and blood, I couldn’t not do it”. As a teenager she would serve cask wine to smoking guests. Now she creates the atmosphere in the room. She describes the luxury of talking about art all day with people who actually want to hear your ideas and opinions.
We end our conversation philosophically. I asked what the most important aspect of the gallery was for her. “I’m grateful that working in this role, it stimulates me intellectually and it has my heart,” she says. “I am fully emotionally connected to a powerful driver, and this is what my Dad has taught me: you must be committed to something that has your head and your heart, it’s incredibly potent.” She describes Peter as charismatic and charming; two qualities she inherits, and continues to radiate into these two rooms.
Another group of visitors walked in the door. I’d sat there for nearly two hours but really wanted to be part of the gallery’s story for a bit longer. Sadly I had to leave for work and save up for the Yvonne Todd.