'Cultural odd-job man' Hamish Keith tells Paul Little why 1967 was such a significant year in his life.

I had become keeper of the Auckland City Art Gallery, where I had been since 1958. I felt settled. All my art school contemporaries had gone overseas to various exotic locations - London, Paris, Spain. I hadn't wanted to go because I was determined to find out where I was first.

But in 1967 I applied for a Carnegie Corporation grant to go to the United States. You could go anywhere you wanted and they paid all your expenses, plus a generous stipend every week. I could go into any Bank of America, show my passport and collect it. I didn't think at the time it was odd, but it was. I discovered years later these grants were run by the CIA.

I arrived in San Francisco and got a taxi. The driver took me to a strange art deco building on the corner of Geary and Taylor streets and vanished without taking a fare. I thought that was odd. The hotel seemed like a film set. I didn't know why people were smoking grass clippings. I was very innocent.

I had only one friend in California - a controversial art history lecturer called Kurt von Meier - but he was in Los Angeles and not coming to San Francisco for a few days. So I locked myself in the hotel and only ventured out to go to the art institute. It was the middle of the summer of love. The flower people were confusing to me.


I went to Berkeley where Kurt was lecturing at a music seminar. It turned out to be a festival with, among other people, the Mommas and the Poppas, and Country Joe and the Fish. I found myself in an amazing new world I hadn't dreamed of.

I eventually went down to LA and to the opening of a nightclub owned by Nancy Sinatra. Country Joe McDonald dedicated a song to me because we had been hanging out a lot.

He said: "What is your bag, man?"

I said: "I'm an art historian."

He said: "That's a shit of a way to change the world."

Then I went by bus to Chicago, which was just beginning to be the great public art city it has become. There was a massive argument going on about putting up a major sculpture of Babe Ruth or a Picasso. The proponent of the Picasso was a developer and by accident I hung out with him and saw this argument from the right side. I realised art could be engaging.

I eventually left and got a bus to Detroit. As we drove in, the whole of Twelfth St was on fire.

There were jeeps everywhere and the bus depot was full of black refugees. I had come from weeks of privilege in Chicago, staying in a brilliant house with wealth everywhere, and suddenly there was this horror show.

That comment of Joe's stuck in my mind. It seemed to me that art and culture could change the world. He was doing it with his great anti-Vietnam anthems.

A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night in New York and decided I'd go home, even though I'd been offered a job at the Museum of Modern Art. I was going to engage and prove Joe wrong.