Northart Turning Twenty

Northcote-based contemporary exhibition gallery, Northart, was established in late 1998, making this year a special milestone in its history. Gallery Director Wendy Harsant has been involved from the beginning.

“I started work with the Northart Society (then known as the Westshore Community Arts Council) in March 1998,” she recalls. “There was no contemporary gallery on the Shore where you could view the work of established North Shore artists. To see good art and innovative exhibitions back then, you had to go into the CBD. I determined to turn that around.

“At the time, the Community Arts Council did not have a permanent gallery but a few months later three shops in the North Shore City Council owned Norman King Building in Northcote became available and Northart was offered a lease for a peppercorn rent.”

The shops needed major renovations to convert them into the contemporary and versatile galleries they are today. After much fundraising, galleries 1, 2 and 3 were created, and with the addition of a further shop space and further fundraising and renovation, two more galleries were added. More recently, another space adjacent to the galleries became available. That has enabled Northart to expand its activities and is used as a studio space for classes, workshops, seminars and films, as well as a general meeting room for community groups.

From the outset, Northart focused on contemporary art, determined to highlight the best of North Shore art and artists, and promote excellence in exhibition installation and design. Wendy notes that this focus has not changed over time. “Art in the community rather than community art,’ she says, making an important distinction. This has perhaps been the key to Northart’s success and reputation, not just on the Shore but in the wider visual arts community.

Architects the late Don Wood, and Bruce Wild of Dixon Wild Architects (then in Takapuna) designed Northart’s galleries, and for the first decade artist Ross Ritchie, who had retired as exhibition designer at Auckland Art Gallery in the mid 1990s, installed all the exhibitions as a volunteer.“These people were critical to establishing Northart as a user-friendly, contemporary art gallery,” says Wendy. “For the first 10 years I was the only employee (we now have four other part time staff) but I have always been encouraged and supported by the various governance communities, an incredible stable of very accomplished artists, and a loyal and very hard-working team of volunteers. All have shared our vision for Northart. “

Wendy says the biggest challenge facing Northart as it hits 20 is the rebuild/transformation of Northcote. Some time in the next three to five years, this will involve the demolition of Northart and the Norman King Building and its replacement with a new community facilities building. “For Northart it is both a challenge and an opportunity; for me personally the idea of this fantastic gallery space being bulldozed is somewhat less than exciting!”

Wendy says there have been any number of exhibitions of which she has been extremely proud, though she admits her favourite annual show is ‘Pocket Edition. Small work for Large Walls’. 

Pushed to name others, she highlights three:

  • ‘Arrested Practice’ in 2016. This involved works that artists were, for various reasons, unable to complete (but hadn’t painted over or thrown out). “Everyone – artists and the public alike – found it a fascinating show.”
  • ‘Rear Vision. 6 artists looking back’ in 2012 which was effectively a mini retrospective for six established artists: Robert Ellis, Ross Ritchie, Alistair Nisbet-Smith, Simon McIntyre, Frank van Schaik and Garry Currin, who were all associated with the North Shore. All these artists have been, and remain, very supportive of Northart.
  • The pre-Christmas $100 (or less) Show. This was an immensely popular cash-and-carry show of mostly small ceramic and craft objects, but some small paintings and prints.  “It started in 1999 as $40 or less, then went to $50 for several years, and finally $100 until it finally lost traction in 2013.”

Ironically, none of these exhibitions is represented in the exhibition Wendy is currently curating to celebrate Northart’s 20th anniversary. Simply entitled ‘Twenty’, it will include 20 works by 20 artists, one from each year 1999 – 2018.  It will be a comprehensive show, with works selected to demonstrate the broad reach of Northart and highlight some of the personal and human-interest stories as well as for aesthetic reasons. 

A second show to mark the 20th anniversary is a re-creation of the first show Northart held: ‘5/100 New Zealand Craft Artists’, in November 1998. It coincided with the publication of Helen Schamroth’s book ‘100 New Zealand Craft Artists’ and included a book launch as well as an exhibition by the five craft artists in the book who lived on the North Shore (Merilyn Wiseman, Peter Collis, Susan Holmes, Freda Brierley and Warwick Freeman).

Working with Wendy to take Northart into the next decade (or two) is an enthusiastic Board of eight volunteers, four of whom joined the Board at the AGM in late June. Channel Magazine spoke to three of the new Board members.

New Board Chair is Rudy Birzin. He has a background in business; his love of art was developed as a child when his parents took him to galleries and museums in New York City. Living in Hillcrest, he became aware of Northart as it’s directly opposite the Northcote library, and started visiting Northart in 2012 with his young children after library visits. “They are now old enough to go to the monthly Gallery Time for Kids at Northart.  The teacher, Fiona, has always been very welcoming and really encouraging in having my kids see the current exhibitions and incorporate ideas into their art.  Her photos from these events pointed me to the Northart Facebook page, where I saw the call for board members. After meeting Wendy and hearing her passion for both the Northcote community and the art one, I was easily drawn to helping out. “

Leon Tan is Associate Professor in Creative Industries at Unitec, and has been involved in arts advocacy for many years in a variety of capacities. “I have visited Northart for several years and have always been impressed with the gallery’s commitment to showcasing contemporary arts on this side of the harbour bridge,” he says. “Moving to the area in 2017, I wanted to become more involved, so when Wendy approached me about joining the Board, it was an easy decision to say yes.”

Naomi Bell is a practicing artist and head of art at Birkenhead College. She has a long association with the gallery and with Wendy, who is clearly a powerful persuasive force for Northart. “Initially, Wendy was my theory tutor at Unitec when I was studying visual communication. Since then,” says Naomi, “I have exhibited at Northart as a photographer and run exhibitions there with the students from Birkenhead College. Wendy has always been very supportive of community groups and has always nurtured an appreciation of art in youth. “

All three are looking to the future with anticipation – and have some clear views of what they would like Northart to achieve.

“I hope to help Northart develop a more extensive public programme,” says Leon. “As a long-time advocate for contemporary arts, I look forward to working with Board members to grow Northart and its profile and to consolidate its programming as one of the few contemporary arts institutions on the North Shore. There is potential for Northart to become a world-class regional gallery, and I would like to contribute to its development in this direction.”

Naomi would also like the gallery to grow its profile with younger members of the community and in North Shore schools. “I would love to see students volunteering or interning at the gallery and developing insights into the administration and governance of an art gallery.”

Whatever the future brings, and however the Northcote Town Centre revitalisation impacts, Northart is well-placed to achieve all of what Wendy and the Board would like it to. Alongside its commitment to developing appreciation of contemporary art and artists on the Shore, it has strong community support, exemplified by the attendances at Northart’s regular exhibition openings.

Wendy modestly attributes that to “good art, good food (catered by volunteer extraordinaire Jane), good wine and good conversation!”. We suspect it also has much to do with Wendy’s energy and commitment and the strong networks she has forged during Northart’s first 20 years.