Monday, November 16, 2015

Peter McLeavey 147 Cuba Street

It was never hard to find Peter McLeavey, he'd be sitting at his desk at 147 Cuba Street. If you stayed for a few minutes in the first larger room looking at the exhibition, he'd get up from his desk and come in to talk to you, whoever you were. Everyone has their own Peter McLeavey story but they usually start with one of these conversations because Peter was, before anything else, the great salesman of New Zealand art. And Peter wasn’t just selling the art works he might have in the Gallery at the time, but the whole enterprise. It included the artists he didn't represent, as well as the ones he did, the exhibitions at public institutions, the other dealers, the writers, and the wildly different audiences art attracted. When he did sell work from his own stock or exhibitions it was always with great finesse, quietly revealing to collectors (prospective and actual) the potential of their own choices. And what choices we all had from the exhibitions we saw over the decades: Colin McCahon's Walk with me, the large Woollaston landscapes painted on a full sheet of hardboard, Peter Peryer’s portraits of his wife Erika, Michael Smither’s cross-shaped homages to Rita Angus, Robin White's incisive portraits of Sam Hunt, Jacqueline Fraser's remarkable string maze, Peter Robinson’s percentage works, Julian Dashper’s deconstructed frames, Gordon Walters' Korus,  Billy Apple’s interventions .... the list is long, it is extraordinary, and it is Peter's legacy.

Openings at 147 Cuba Street were a magnet to anyone keen on contemporary art. Peter would pour famously astringent wine and on occasion step up onto a small chair to deliver a brief speech usually concluding with his familiar self-deprecating grin. But we're not talking about a man lacking in self-confidence here. For all his much-admired eccentricities, Peter ran a very tight ship indeed. When you were buying a work on time payment, monthly invoices arrived exactly on time. The envelopes were most often addressed in green ink in the well-known McLeavey hand and the accounting, even when tracing the most complex arrangements, was always 100 percent accurate. As he might have said himself, that was the McLeavey Way.

The McLeavey Way was also about creating a sense of excitement and mystery around the work in the Gallery. A painting might be tucked away in the store room, but with the door left open just enough to give a tantalising glimpse. How often were paintings left leaning face against the wall taunting you to have a look after noticing Peter was conveniently in the next room. Countless collections reflect Peter's ability to coax great works out of the studio. 'I must do more for my artists,' he'd often tell Gallery visitors and the artists, knowing they had a champion, sent great works to Wellington.

Peter has been unwell for some time and we've witnessed him slowly withdraw from the world he so dominated for nearly 50 years. That his daughter Olivia has taken over the Gallery must have been a great delight to him for it was also a family affair. Anyone who visited the Peter McLeavey Gallery regularly would have come to meet his wife Hillary and his other two children Catherine and Dominic. We are thinking of them now and what never again seeing Peter at his desk at 147 Cuba Street means to us all.

1974. Peter McLeavey puts down the hammer, steps back and gives Colin McCahon's The Song of the Shining Cuckoo a long appraising look. Turning to a regular visitor watching him he says, 'Terrific isn’t it?' It was. And so was he.

Image: Peter McLeavey, September 1989. The painting is by Julian Dashper