On May 11, 1966, a new arts column appeared in the New Zealand Herald, by a writer known only by the initials T.J.McN. At his suggestion, it was changed to TJ McNamara - a byline that continues to appear in the paper to this day. This month, Terence James McNamara celebrates 50 years of writing his weekly "At the Galleries" column, making him the world's longest-serving newspaper arts columnist. Since that first column, he's reviewed more than 10,000 exhibitions and chronicled the rise of New Zealand's contemporary arts scene. He's never missed a deadline either, writes Dionne Christian.

In a sense, it all began with a question from a small boy: "If we're going to catch the bus into Auckland Library, please can we go to the art gallery, too?"

It's doubtful Alma and James McNamara could have foreseen the influence those Saturday morning visits to the Auckland Art Gallery would have on their only child. Though Terry - TJ - could draw, his forte was English and his parents were rightly proud.

They'd both left school early; Alma to be an apprentice milliner who would later head the millinery department at Sneddens Haberdashery Store on Karangahape Rd.

As TJ read his Orakei Primary School books, he also looked at the advertisements on the back of the Whitcombe and Tombs readers. One captured his imagination. It was for The Life of Leonardo da Vinci.

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"That image stayed in my mind even though the school never bought the book. In the fifth or sixth form I won the public speaking prize for a speech on Leonardo da Vinci," he recalls.

"At university, I would have liked to have studied art history but there was no art history department. That was well in the future."

If you were interested in art that meant being "good" at it and attending Elam School of Fine Arts. Though TJ admits he can produce a decent sketch, he wasn't good enough to be an artist so, graduating from Auckland Grammar with prizes in English, he continued with the subject at the University of Auckland.

He kept reading about art and art history, juggling it all with part-time holiday jobs in the freezing works, at the glassworks and Watties Cannery. TJ chuckles when asked if he went to art shows as a university student.

"If there'd been any to go to, I would have," he says. "The decisive thing that changed our art scene was most certainly the opening of dealer galleries, because it gave artists a place to exhibit outside of Auckland Art Gallery and it created an interest in - a market for - New Zealand art that wasn't just landscape painting."

In the early 1960s, as TJ began teaching at his former high school, galleries began to open, including the Ikon and Barry Lett Galleries. Both showed work by the likes of Gretchen Albrecht, Colin McCahon, Don Binney, Pat Hanly, Milan Mrkusich, Gordon Walters, Ralph Hotere, Michael Smither and Robert Ellis.

Meanwhile, the New Vision Gallery, established by Dutch artists and recent emigrants Kees Hos and his wife Tina, was doing a brisk trade in His Majesty's Arcade. It was the first shop to sell work by local artists, potters, jewellers, weavers and other craftspeople, including Barry Brickell, Richard Killeen, Philip Clairmont, Louise Henderson and Theo Schoon.

TJ remembers it as an exciting time of change, when a new generation of artists challenged the views of the establishment. "There were artists, like Ralph Hotere and Pat Hanly, who had been away and achieved overseas but decided to come back. I would go along to the openings and there was always a sense of excitement at what would be shown because, for a long time, landscape painting was all that was shown; the only prizes were for landscape painting."

Describing the then "establishment" as anti-modern art, TJ's reading had taught him a useful lesson about sticking with the "tried and supposedly true" at the expense of the new and innovative. Impressionism, the 19th century art movement that started in France and was to change the entire art scene, had been dismissed by traditionalists.

T.J. McNamara. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
T.J. McNamara. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Changing times gave him an idea and he approached the Auckland Star to write about the nascent arts scene. Rebuffed, he started giving art history lectures for the Society of Arts. The then-deputy editor of the NZ Herald, Noel Chappelle, went to one of the lectures and, hearing TJ speak, wrote to him asking him to start a column for the Herald.

His first article, "Techniques Vary At Exhibition", was about the Society of Arts Festival featuring work by Peter and Theo Janssen, Kees Hos and Alison Pickmere. It was followed, two days later, by a report on an exhibition of Shakespeare lithographs at the John Leech Gallery.

From the beginning, TJ set himself some objectives: he wanted to write about art as news and, in 50 years, has remained mindful that he writes for a general newspaper audience and not specialists. He also sticks to writing about what he sees on the wall - or, sometimes, the floor - in front of him.

"I never wanted to be accused of favouritism or anything like that, so I was careful to avoid becoming overly friendly with artists or gallery owners," he says. "I always keep in mind that I am writing for an audience who may not know a lot about art, so I try to keep it straightforward and describe what I see, but I keep myself out of it." The burgeoning number of galleries and exhibitions has made his job more challenging. "A busy week was one where there were four openings; today there can be up to 20, so I have to prioritise."

Now a new McNamara generation is appreciating art. TJ's son Simon completed a PhD in Art History and, while writing his dissertation Concetto in Rembrandt's Passion Series, tutored six art history courses and lectured in three different papers. He's now become a teacher so, like his father, can share his knowledge with others.