The Radical by Warren Feeney review

by Sally Blundell / 21 April, 2012
Conservative, reactionary, barriers to forays into new artistic waters – history has not been kind to arts societies, but are such accusations warranted?

Regarding the Canterbury Society of Arts, Warren Feeney, previous director of the CSA’s later incarnation, Christchurch’s Centre of Contemporary Art gallery, suggests not. For almost 100 years, he argues, the CSA “was the most influential and dynamic arts society in New Zealand”. Founded in 1880, it was undoubtedly a splendid idea at the time – a society to promote the study of fi ne arts and hold regular exhibitions of original works of art as part of a wider goal on behalf of the young colony for “the cultivation of the intellect [and] the elevation of Character, by the study of all that is beautiful in Art and in Nature”.

Although repeatedly snagging on the reefs of inadequate housing, insufficient funding and anti-modernist sentiment, the resulting society played a vital role in positioning Christchurch as a bastion of the arts and in developing the Robert McDougall Art Gallery collection and the city’s art school.

Whereas other arts societies foundered in the wake of ever-stronger metropolitan galleries and new dealer galleries, the CSA clung on, surviving challenges from independent art groups (Feeney downplays the much-touted divisions between the CSA and the Group) and new galleries such as the Brooke Gifford, while desperately juggling its responsibilities to its paying members and its aspirations to be a relevant arts institution.

At times it succeeded – the society’s commitment to crafts in the 1960s and feminism in the 1970s, and its engagement with others arts institutions, saved it from the fate of many other arts societies. At other times it didn’t – the four-year battle to have Frances Hodgkins’s Pleasure Garden accepted by the city council, and the society’s periodic resistance to contemporary art, especially under CSA secretary, treasurer and later McDougall director William Baverstock, earned the ire of many a New Zealand artist.

Alongside the McDougall and the art school, the CSA was, growled Colin McCahon in the Press in 1949, one of the city’s “three tombs of dead art”. Scholarly, heavily annotated (the captions and footnotes form a parallel story to the main text) and well-illustrated,

Feeney’s overview of the CSA, ending with its 1996 redevelopment into CoCA (currently closed as a result of the earthquake), tells of an institution that, although marginalised, succeeded in avoiding the death sentence implicit in such a description.

THE RADICAL, THE REACTIONARY AND THE CANTERBURY SOCIETY OF ARTS 1880-1996, by Warren Feeney (CUP, $49.95).

Sally Blundell is a journalist and art writer.
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