The Brooke/Gifford Gallery


In the nearly quarter century since Christchurch saw its first true dealer gallery, there have been a number of attempts at establishing viable art spaces-the most recent only a few months ago. Attempts have ranged from the little closet galleries to the posh: but only one has succeeded, and its stable comprises some of the most significant artists in the country. The Brooke/Gifford Gallery clearly has exactly the right combination of ingredients to succeed in Christchurch.

One recent attempt at a second major dealer had everything an uptown New York gallery could boast: it was on the ground floor in the heart of the city's commercial district, across from the Reserve Bank building and sported a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window and immaculate carpeted floors. Now those spaces house a clutter of television sets.

Richard Killeen installation

The Brooke/Gifford, on the other hand, records higher sales figures every year. This evidence might suggest that Christchurch can support only one dealer gallery. But the director, Judith Gifford, points out that it has certainly not been a matter of survival by default. Only sound management during its eight year history could have enabled it to gain the confidence of both the artist and the buying public. indeed, she says, she would welcome a second dealer in the city.

Christchurch had a relatively early starter in 1959 when André and Barbara Brooke opened their Gallery 91 in Cashel Street, a brave move in a city whose contemporary art market had been dominated for so many generations by the Canterbury Society of Arts. With very few exceptions, (such as Helen Hitchings's short-lived gallery in Wellington in the late 'forties, and Peter Webb's Argus House Gallery in Auckland in the following decade), no one in this country had ever ventured to make a living by offering to the public the work of serious contemporary New Zealand artists.

The Brookes had vision and discernment; they exhibited McCahon, Woollaston, Mrkusich, Gopas, McFarlane, Coley and other younger artists. They staved open till late at night, served coffee, rapidly became the focus and hope of the city's artists, and just as quickly had to close. By the end of the year Christchurch was without a proper dealer gallery, and for the next fifteen years remained so. Only craft shops such as Several Arts on Colombo Street and the Little Woodware Gallery on Victoria Street partly filled the dealer gallery role.

Finally, in response to a clear need and the grumblings of artists, Judith Gifford and Barbara Brooke (André had settled in Tahiti) in 1975 moved upstairs into what used to be a Manchester Street motorbike shop. By May, the Brooke/Gifford opened with a show of Tom Field.

Five years later Barbara Brooke died. Judith Gifford has continued to run the business. To keep a dealer gallery alive and well for eight years in Christchurch, or anywhere in New Zealand, is remarkable. Nor has the gallery had to resort to mantlepiece art to survive. The Brooke/Gifford has been able to mount some challenging but very non-commercial exhibitions: most recently, for instance, work by Billy Apple, John Hurrell and Paul Cullen. It has helped launch careers by bringing local artists to national attention - such as Neil Dawson with his 1978 House Alterations exhibition. Shortly after opening, the gallery held the first exhibition of the graphic works of Carl Sydow. Christchurch sculptor Bing Dawe first exhibited at the Brooke/Gifford the following year; and in 1978 the gallery arranged the important travelling exhibition of light-works by the returned expatriate Bill Culbert.

The Christchurch market for contemporary art, reflects Judith Gifford, would not exceed several hundred. That market has perhaps been more conservative than other centres, less adventurous, and more likely to stick to local favourites. But the gallery now reports a significant trend to a younger buying public, and the effects of that trend with its consequent shift in taste will be far-reaching.

In December 1980 the Arts Centre of Christchurch, in association with the Robert McDougall Art Gallety, opened its Gingko Print Workshop & Gallery for works on paper which has become a national facility for printmakers. While it has pretty well taken up the print market in the city, it has not affected the Brooke/Gifford which remains the only place in Christchurch to buy the paintings of many out-of-town artists such as Gavin Chilcott, Dick Frizzell, Max Gimblett, Nigel Brown and Richard Killeen, among others.

The gallery is pleasantly pragmatic. Over the past eight years, it has organised one show after another - about fifteen exhibitions a year at three week intervals. The spaces are clean and uncluttered: three galleries (the tiny one was 'made over' by Billy Apple in 1979), an office and a lofty stock room. Survival has defined its own cautious limitations. You don't tinker with a formula that works. There have been thoughts of moving to other premises and to another part of the city, but caution has prevailed.

Where a number of other dealer galleries in the country are becoming exclusive agents for a limited number of artists, Judith Gifford remains interested in being the local exhibitor for a large number of artists. She seeks a balance between the established reputations and the young developing artists, and is presently arranging a group show of highly talented young Christchurch painters, including Richard Uti and Gary Collins.

Looking at the future of the gallery, Judith Gifford is neither worried nor filled with overly-ambitious ideas. Her quiet, calm and almost nonplussed reaction to being asked to divine the future implies, simply, that there will be one for her gallery. In these days when some dealer galleries in the country are reported to be having hard times precipitated by falling sales and a shaky market, that confidence reflects the somewhat stolid Christchurch scene. For eight years a solid and discerning art market has been built up by the Brooke/Gifford - a market that shows every sign of continuing to grow.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 28 Spring 1983