Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Melvin (Pat) Day 1923-2016

This weekend Melvin Day died at the age of 92. Pat (as he was known to everyone) was a well-known artist and art historian, of course, but we remember him best as the director of the National Art Gallery (now Te Papa) from 1968 to 1978. It was over this decade that he helped drag the institution into the twentieth century. Although most of us quite rightly see Luit Bieringa as the true hero of contemporary art and the National collection, it was Pat who made the initial and perhaps the most difficult break with the past by committing the institutions to purchases of work made by his contemporaries - Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Gordon Walters, Pat Hanly.  Day also brought a younger generations of aritsts into the collection including Gretchen Albrecht, Chris Booth, Tony Fomison, Vivian Lynn, Ian Scott and Philip Trusttum. It's hard to remember how conservative the National Art Gallery was at that time. The NZ Academy of Fine Arts still held sway well into the 1970s. As a result Day rarely got the credit he deserved, caught between an impatient new art world that never felt he was doing enough, and the holders of the status quo that were convinced he was doing entirely too much. Looking through the acquisitions of Pat's decade it's revealing to see how a flurry of purchases would be followed by a quiet year or two as the forces of reaction pushed back until he regained momentum and got back into it again.

On a more personal note, Pat was a staunch and valued support for a very young and woefully unprepared new director of the Dowse Art Gallery in 1976. For Jim at that time he was the very best company and a generous mentor who knew that the politicking around art institutions could be intense and surprisingly personal. There was nothing quite like getting a call from Pat on a Friday afternoon suggesting a drink to wash away that week's bruising from rogue city councillors and antagonistic visitors. And an invitation to Seatoun to share a meal with Pat and his wife Oroya was always treat. They were both smart, very funny, opinionated and full of not always repeatable stories about who was doing what, but always grounded in a passion for art and history.

Image: a 1948 Self portrait by Melvin Day