Home is where the art is at Dunedin's must-see gallery, writes Yvonne van Dongen
ART shouts the sign. Big fat caps banged up above a 1920s Dunedin bungalow. We spy it from the car as we leave the St Clair hot saltwater pool. A sign as bossy as that demands investigation when you're on holiday. There's a lot of it about. Art, that is. You could be forgiven for thinking art is as prolific as mould in this country. We're imagining a metal gecko or two, some bright florals, the odd seascape and a brace of driftwood carvings. Still, the house looks nice and who isn't nosy about houses?
Everyone is. Which is probably why one of the first things one of the owners says to us upon entering is "do go in the bedroom". Cecilia Mickelsen says a lot more besides because she is incredibly voluble and possessed of a ferocious energy, and also kindness, because she completely ignores our dripping hair and stunned gormless physogs and whisks us around their gallery-cum-home pointing out works, pulling out drawers filled with treasures and informing us of the heritage of pretty much everything we lay eyes on.
You could mistake brimming enthusiasm for expertise, which is how she came to be offered jobs in three major galleries in Denmark in the late 90s. Until then, she'd been a management consultant working around the world, bringing up two sons, but she had no background in art. Since then her expertise has grown but her enthusiasm remains undimmed.
In 2000 she returned home and began a new career as a jeweller and artist. Her larger artworks were exhibited in her son's Wānaka eatery, called Cafe Fe because of its views of Mt Iron. After her son's death, Cecilia moved to Dunedin to be close to her remaining son, and opened an in-home gallery.
In 2008 Cecilia's life took an unexpected but wonderful turn when she met her future wife, Megan Mickelsen. Megan comes with an equally dizzying array of diverse skills ranging from animal science, land economics and real estate. Cecilia followed Megan to her Texas home where the couple ran a gallery, first in Austin and then in their home.
Finally, in 2015 the pair returned to Dunedin and established Fe29 Gallery, attracting artists of the calibre of sculptor and jeweller Tanya Ashken, work by her late husband John Drawbridge, Robert Macdonald, Christine Hellyar, Marte Szirmay and Don Peebles. The gallery name is both a tribute to her son and a nod to the chemical references to iron (fe) and copper (number 29 on the periodic table).
The couple haven't had to hunt for artists. Somehow they've all appeared via word of mouth or serendipitous circumstance. For instance they both loved the work of Marian Fountain but knew she lived in Paris so put that on the back burner. However, on a visit to sculptor Hamish Horsely's home in Wanganui, he welcomed them and added "Come and meet my friend Marian from Paris." As a result of this meeting, Fountain committed to provide work for their gallery.
But that's not all - in the drawers is jewellery with Persian and Roman glass beads strung with amber and fossilised coral, dating back to 600 BC. Plus antique etchings including work by Rembrandt and Goya.
Everything not screwed down inside this house appears to be for sale. Also, outside, the lush greenery is punctuated by sculptures, which may or may not be permanent fixtures. The only artworks people can't make off with is a work the couple bought from Drawbridge's estate, and a few etchings.
All these strangers wandering through your house, it must be rather like an eternal open home I venture, thinking of all the cleaning and tidying. But Cecilia insists this is no bother. They're both constitutionally tidy. Also they love to see the excitement on people's faces when they visit.
"We love to support artists, many famous but not necessarily wealthy, and to support Dunedin by showing work not available in other galleries.
"It's not all about the money. We have children who come and love it and also many older people who have no room for more art in their houses. For us, it's about making sure people who come here enjoy it. They'll usually tell others and sales will eventuate."
It seems to be working. Post-Covid, Fe29 Gallery has lost its international visitors but benefited from the stay-at-homes with disposable income.