I'm glad I resisted temptation and didn't buy one of the fundraising bricks the new Dowse in Lower Hutt offered as a fundraising gimmick. I'd have wanted to kick it each time I visited - which isn't often these days.

I bet I'm not alone. If we were expecting a bigger and better version of the old Dowse back then we were mistaken: It turned out to be the curse of the new boss, the most ambitious of whom commission building projects to their own greater glory. It looks so good on the CV. And then they scarper.

I was at the opening of the original Dowse. I remember because the artist Don Binney, drunk as a skunk, spent the tedious public speakers' time clambering over my body while both our partners winced. It was okay for them. I was the one getting groped.

Who'd have thought the Dowse would be accused of under-performing today, its visitor numbers stagnant, threatened with slashed council subsidies? Here's a problem all local art galleries could learn from.


I liked the old Dowse, minus Binney, and went there reasonably often. It had a good cafe with tempting food, and a lovely antique stained-glass window hung in the dining space, kicking the ambience along. What was exhibited within was a mixed bag, but that was part of the charm.

A portrait of Percy Dowse, the long-serving mayor the place was named after, hung somewhere overhead, painted by Julia Lynch. It was well out of art fashion, and all the perkier for it. Academic art, the only art currently in vogue with art insiders, can dictate terms in bigger city spaces. Smaller art galleries look to their ratepayers for guidance, 99 per cent of whom couldn't give a rats for high art and don't like to be talked down to.

I liked the Dowse best in its craft museum incarnation, unique in the country, as it still would be. On a relatively modest budget it built up an important collection of contemporary craft, and in focussing on that did a sensible thing. My collection was shown there a few years back, vintage textile crafts that were part of this country's long domestic tradition. Most families still have at least one maker.

But there is a sharp class divide between high art and crafts. No reputations in the art world would be enhanced by championing potters, weavers, jewellery makers, wood turners, glass-makers, knitters and all the others in that large and vibrant community, though Auckland's Objectspace does a brilliant job. And so the Dowse - under a new director - declared itself instead to be a contemporary art gallery again, and remains so. I wonder what the council thinks about this see-sawing, and frankly, if it thinks at all.

The new Dowse is not my favourite building. A large space set aside for a craft shop failed, and has looked forlorn ever since. For ages you couldn't find the front door, the architect's bright idea I guess. There's an odd glassed-in outdoor space for no obvious reason, and a number of small rooms for exhibits to be poked into, along with larger exhibition spaces. A historic Maori building is out of whack with the rest of it. The cafe is bigger and flasher, the food may be okay, but the tables always seem to need wiping. The foyer is a nothing space, the small shop's in a muddling area, and I'd rather think about Porirua's Pataka, which I prefer, as do 100,000 more visitors a year.

Pataka is fortunate, attached to the Porirua public library and near the city's swimming pool. There's a decent cafe, and its glassed-in outside courtyard area showcases a pretty garden. A good, focussed shop showcases craft makers, and exhibitions link to the multicultural community it serves. With less money and fewer staff than the Dowse it does a great job.

Dowse director Courtney Johnston was put on the spot last week when she presented her annual report. Hutt City deputy mayor David Bassett asked for better communication from the gallery, and Johnston shot back - no doubt testily - that councillors seldom attended exhibition openings. But why don't they? That's the 100,000 people question.