Dorothea Lange, The Road West, New Mexico, 1938. Photographs New York.
The gallerist Peter McLeavey (1936-2015) was a seminal figure in the art scene of New Zealand, a man of depth and sophistication who nearly single-handedly created the country’s art market. He is the subject of an award-winning biography and of a full-length documentary film narrated by actor Sam Neill. While painting and sculpture were his stock-in-trade, McLeavey quietly and deliberately assembled a collection of photographs that was deeply personal in meaning and world-class in quality, including a depth of work by Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt, and others.
McLeavey began exhibiting art in 1966 in the bedroom of his flat in Wellington. Among his countrymen were artists whose work he believed needed to be seen, work that was on par with – yet fundamentally different from – that being created in New York, London, or Paris. He was driven, he said, by a desire to “nurture the culture, feed the culture, expose the culture to people that didn’t know about it.” He became a vocal advocate for artists such as Toss Woolaston and Colin McCahon, among many others, creating a market for their paintings while at the same time maintaining his job at an insurance company.
Bill Brandt, Deserted Street in Bloomsbury, 1942. Photographs New York.
His dedication to supporting these artists is borne out by the precarious early finances of the gallery. In a 2009 interview he recounted, with some amusement, “The first year I worked, every dollar I earned cost me four dollars to get it. The second year, every dollar I earned cost me three; the third year, every dollar earned cost me two dollars to get it.” In the face of this consistent, if slow, march toward profitability, McLeavey quit his day job, found a gallery space on Cuba Street, and became a full-time art dealer. McLeavey continued to operate out of his modest Cuba Street gallery for 40 years, ultimately becoming “the most important commercial gallerist New Zealand has ever had, effectively the pre-eminent publisher of modern New Zealand art in the past 50 years,” according to Jeremy Diggle, Professor of Fine Arts at Massey University.
Robert Frank, View from Hotel Window, Butte, Montana, 1956. Photographs New York.
McLeavey began building his collection of photographs in the 1970s. He was attracted to photography, in one sense, because it did not conflict with the work he sold in his gallery and offered an artistic experience wholly apart from it. More importantly, McLeavey found he had a deep affinity for photography, and his acquisitions often resonated with memories of his childhood, during which his father’s job as a railway worker required frequent moves. His first serious purchase was Robert Frank’s View from Hotel Window – Butte, Montana, which reminded him, he said, of looking out over the rooftops of whatever small New Zealand town would be his family’s new temporary home. McLeavey’s purchases were intensely personal, and often only concluded after much correspondence with dealers half a world away. From this distance McLeavey forged fruitful relationships with Fraenkel Gallery, Edwynn Houk, and Pace/MacGill, among others.
McLeavey developed a philosophy about collecting photography and his writings on the subject are reliably eloquent. In a 2000 letter he wrote, “And Photography? Sometimes I think it keeps me alive, spiritually. A mapping of the self; each image redolent in memory; and of a time; and of a place. Maybe of that Paradise each holds in one’s heart. A World. A place. A time.”
McLeavey’s collection was exhibited posthumously in the 2018 exhibition, Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph at Adam Art Gallery / Te Pātaka Toi in Wellington, curated by Geoffrey Batchen and Deidre Sullivan and accompanied by a printed catalogue. The exhibition took its title from McLeavey’s statement: "I think there is one more photograph I have to find. The last photograph. I’m still looking for it. It’s out there somewhere. I’m waiting for it to claim me, the last photograph. I don’t know what it is, but when I see it, I’ll know it and I’ll buy it, and it will hang with all the others. And maybe then the life, the story, the quest, will be complete."