When John Gow and Gary Langsford rolled up their sleeves and transformed a former Grey Lynn petrol station into one of New Zealand's first contemporary galleries, they were on their way to making art history.

Not that they realised it at the time; they were too busy saving their fledgling business.

Two months after they opened in August 1987 - with a group show featuring artists like Dick Frizzell, Judy Millar, Greer Twiss and Allen Maddox - the stock-market crashed and they were left with a hefty mortgage on a building worth half what they paid for it.

It could have been over before it even started but this month, the gallery turns 30 and is now regarded as one of the most successful and influential in the country.

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Gow, Langsford and more recently-appointed director Anna Jackson celebrate with a group show that includes work by some of the artists they've represented since '87 and those who have joined them in the ensuing years: Laurence Aberhart, Michael Hight, John Walsh, Max Gimblett, Reuben Paterson, Paul Dibble, Sara Hughes and John Pule among them.

If it reads like a who's who of the NZ art world, that's because it is.

"Artists sometimes ask us what it takes to show here," says Gow, "and I say, 'it's quite simple, really. We have to like you and we have to like your painting'."

What's the secret of their success?

Working incredibly hard, says Langsford; six days a week and on call all the time, adds Gow. Being able to put together deals some might consider audacious, says Jackson who admits to being the more cautious of the three.

"They're real entrepreneurs; it's taken me a long time to get used to what they do," she says.

Of course, it's also about having an eye for great art, painting and sculpture.

"I think the one thing that distinguishes us, too, from what we call the primary dealer galleries is that we will actually buy work ourselves," says Langsford. "Most galleries don't do that but I think you give people confidence if you actually put your money where your mouth is so we can hold a large amount of stock that the gallery will invest in..."

And those rough early months, weathered partly because of loyal clients who believed in what they were doing, prepared Gow and Langsford for even tougher challenges. If they thought the stock market crash was bad, it was a walk in the park compared to the global financial crisis of 2008.

"In 2008, the market plummeted and then it just flat-lined," Gow says, adding that in '87 there'd been peaks and troughs. "There were no bounces at all."

Langsford chips in, saying it was like that for nearly three years which meant cost cutting, belt tightening, working in partnership with artists to move work and selling stock they owned. Some well-timed international sales helped and they're proud of the fact that they've devoted time and energy into promoting NZ artists around the world.

Things they thought would hurt them, like the advent of internet art sales, haven't had the impact they anticipated. Their website is comprehensive and up-to-date but online sales haven't developed as strongly as many thought.

Langsford believes buyers are comfortable with online buying up to a certain price, but then want to come in and look at the work in a gallery. Gow says that's because a screen never provides the sense of physicality you get from standing in front of a work, no sense of scale or depth of colour.

They'll be plenty of that on display at the Gow Langsford's Lorne and Kitchener St galleries for the next four weeks. The 30th anniversary group show is now on until Saturday, September 16.