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Acquired taste: Mark Stevenson has made up for lost time since first discovering New Zealand art and artists. Photo/Getty Images

Art collector Mark Stevenson and the Te Papa of Picton

An old hardware store in Picton houses an astonishing range of works by this country’s finest artists, courtesy of an inspired collector.

With a population of just 4300, Picton is hardly the place you’d expect to find an art museum showcasing works by some of New Zealand’s most revered artists. The Stevenson Collection, owned and operated by Mark Stevenson, is the town’s best-kept secret: despite its location on the high street, it doesn’t feature on websites such as TripAdviser, or even the town’s tourist information site.

Stevenson has no complaints; the collection is a labour of love and not a commercial concern. The former primary-school principal and retired real estate agent opens according to demand and his own inclination. A handwritten note on a whiteboard in the window on a recent weekend advertised a tour of the “Te Papa of Picton” for 2pm Saturday; a dozen or so turned up to enjoy Stevenson’s free showing of his eclectic and impressive collection, which includes works by Woollaston, McCahon, Hodgkins, Brown, Walters and Hammond, as well as newer and emerging talents. Stevenson estimates he has 400 paintings, sculptures or installations and about 100 of them are on display on the simple plywood wall dividers in what was once the local hardware store.

Stevenson grew up in modest surroundings in Timaru. One of four boys raised by their mother, he had no awareness of, or exposure to art until he was in his twenties. He’s overcome a range of health problems, including type 1 diabetes, and serious heart conditions which, he says, have made other challenges in life surmountable.

The gallery is in a former hardware store. Photo/Richard Briggs/Listener

He quit primary school leadership for real estate, establishing a business that would go on to earn industry awards and contribute to various charities in the Marlborough region. Along the way, he became a self-taught appreciator and collector of modern New Zealand art. He and his wife, Bernadette, have three adult children and live in an apartment in Picton.

How did you become interested in art?

When I was still a primary-school teacher, about 30 years ago, I went to Nelson one day and saw a couple of small artworks. I’m not sure what the trigger was, but I bought them and then started taking a really active interest in the artists themselves. And that’s when the collection really expanded. I find the artists themselves as interesting, if not more interesting, than their art.

A 1990 portrait of Stevenson by JS Parker. Photo/Richard Briggs/Listener

Your approach seems to be along the lines of “I know what I like” rather than collecting in a more calculated way – is that a fair summation?

I have an extensive library, which contains most published books on New Zealand contemporary art and artists. However, my main source of information over the decades has been from magazines such as Art New Zealand, Artnews and The Australian Art Collector. But when I see a work, I always have an instinctive and quick reaction. For example, Bill Hammond’s Unknown European Artist – I drove to Christchurch to see it, took one look at it, and said, “Yes, it has just got to be in the collection.”

Who’s your favourite artist?

André Hemer is pretty awesome. He’s still young, only in his thirties, but establishing himself around the world. And I do believe he will be one of our most internationally acclaimed artists. But of course, I love McCahon and I love Hammond. Where do you stop? Where do you start?

Frances Hodgkins’ A Country Window.

Do you intend to stop at some point or will you just keep on collecting?

I get asked that a lot. People want to know what I am going to do with the collection. I always say it’s actually not my problem because, when I’m gone, my children and my wife or whoever’s left will have to take care of it.

You presumably have some pretty good art at home …

There might be a couple of McCahons over there and Gordon Walters. It’s a real mixture, and although it’s a reasonably big apartment, hanging space is restricted.

Was art part of your life growing up in Timaru?

I had absolutely no knowledge of art when I was a schoolboy. Even when I went to teacher’s college I still didn’t have any concept of art. It was just something that developed and it took decades for me to discover that Timaru had the most amazing art gallery called the Aigantighe.

Stevenson. Photo/Richard Briggs/Listener

You haven’t let your health problems get in the way of a successful career and a love of art.

Even when I was running the big [real estate] company, I was still spending at least 30 hours a week on art. The internet is a wonderful thing for finding out bits and pieces, but when you meet the artists themselves, that’s just fabulous. I’d love to have met Rita Angus – she was a pretty amazing lady – and also Frances Hodgkins.

During your tour, you made the point that you thought Hodgkins is underrated compared with, say, McCahon. Do you want to elaborate?

In the art world, it’s always the male artists who get the greatest recognition. I think Frances Hodgkins deserved more recognition – she’s not a New Zealand artist, she’s an international artist. I own A Country Window, which she herself said was one of her finest. It is now on loan to the Auckland Art Gallery for the Hodgkins exhibition. When Dunbar Sloane Sr wanted to import it from England to New Zealand, the Tate Gallery expressed a desire for it to stay in the UK because they said it’s too important to British modern art history. When you’re a Kiwi and you go overseas the way Frances did, you become an expatriate and you don’t get the recognition at home that you probably should, because you’re not seen as a New Zealand artist. Historically, many New Zealand artists who went overseas were ignored when they came home or undervalued. But when you look at Hodgkins’ gouache paintings – astonishing. She was a very important British artist.

Potter Fran Maguire’s Morphing Life’s Journey. Photo/Richard Briggs/Listener

How many hours a week do you put into the gallery and the tours?

As many as it takes. On average, I probably have about 50 or 60 people through a week and do five or six talks. I know I am not on TripAdviser, etc, but I don’t want a real job, I just want to share the collection in a down-to-earth manner. People are blown away that this collection is in Picton, and I think that is fantastic. Picton and the Marlborough Sounds are beautiful, but to have a major art collection [here] is a little bit unusual, to say the least. I say this is Picton’s Te Papa – that means house of treasures. When you have an art collection, it’s so important that the art is shared and people get the opportunity to view it in a relaxed manner. That’s what this is about. There’s nothing highfalutin – just me talking about the artists and sharing the love.

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.