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10 May 2018

Art Eye-Opener

Art Explore’s Caril Cowan and Brian Latimer lift the lid on the myopic art world, to deliver affordable thought-provoking artist experiences to ordinary people.


For behind the myriad gallery tours and discussions that make up the Art Explore regular fare is a secret mission to see an original piece of dealer art in every New Zealand household.

About 12 years ago, Caril and Brian reached a stage where they didn’t want to focus as heavily on their busy high-powered careers and were looking for something new. They’d become serious about collecting works by emerging New Zealand artists and inspired by an art tour they took in Melbourne, it dawned on them they could share their delight by doing the same thing in New Zealand, promoting the same contemporary art they were collecting themselves to the tourist market.

But the prevailing mood among New Zealand’s promoters meant getting to the people they wanted to reach was more difficult than they’d anticipated. A look at the various tourist websites showed a diet of scenery and action but little in the way of art tours. Tourism sites were just not interested in New Zealand art.

“It’s changed a bit now,” says Caril. “But when we started, ATEED’s website didn’t say ‘what to do in Auckland’, it said ‘what to do on a day excursion out of Auckland’! And they wondered why people didn’t stay in Auckland,” she laughs.

TJ (Terry) McNamara discusses a sculptural work with the artist Gregor Kregar. Gow Langsford Gallery

TJ (Terry) McNamara discusses a sculptural work with the artist Gregor Kregar. Gow Langsford Gallery

Then they were at a function and TJ McNamara, the Herald’s art reviewer, was there and they started talking about their idea. Taking tours of Auckland’s dealer art galleries appealed to him and he suggested he become the guide for Art Explore on Saturday mornings, which is how they arrived at the original format, gathering together groups of interested people in gallery precincts around Auckland city to discuss the art and the artists. To make it as accessible to as many people as possible, the cost was kept to a minimum at about the same as going to the movies.

But they soon realised art tourism was always going to be a hard sell. Says Brian: “No-one comes to Auckland to see New Zealand art. There are people who come to see scenery or take in the action.”

Concerned with the very low appreciation of art in New Zealand, they sought to reach ordinary people like themselves to try to elevate awareness by giving them an experience of some of the extraordinarily innovative art produced here.

TJ McNamara explains a piece by Bill Riley at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery.

TJ McNamara explains a piece by Bill Riley at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery.

“There’s some really good Pacific art going on. People don’t appreciate it enough. It’s our mission to get as many people as possible interested. So, we’re providing experiences around art.”

At first, the galleries simply did not get it. “They thought we were strange, eccentric and it would be all over in six months and we’d go back to our normal jobs sweeping the floor,” says Brian. “The art world can be quite elitist and closed about where their market is. Basically, they’re specialist retail outlets. But they don’t realise this and they don’t see they need to really value all their clientele including potential clientele. They have all sorts of elitist ideas about where their market is. It’s a very confused scene.”

But, 12 years on, Art Explore is now part of the fabric of the art world.

What Caril and Brian do with Art Explore complements their own collecting. “There’s a whole species of art collectors out there,” explains Brian. “There are trend collectors. Other people follow certain artists. We’re quite different. We’ve collected emerging artists and that’s what we see in most of the dealer galleries.

A group check out works by Graham Fletcher at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

A group check out works by Graham Fletcher at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

“We’re helping ordinary people; we’re not looking at moneyed people or even people who would spend $10,000. We’re looking at people who might not even buy. We hope they’ll just come around with us and enjoy the art. Then one day they might invest.

“What we do know is the more we look at art, the more confident we are when we see the right piece. Things may just fall into place when they get a windfall or something and they’ll go and buy that piece.”

The aim is to get people to start on their own journey with art, by asking questions and making up their own mind about art.

“We encourage that sort of talk. That’s the sort of energy we like to see. It’s thrilling to see people on their own art journey.”

They also encourage people to explore a greater breadth of art than they might normally be exposed to. Brian says, “There’s a thing around here called pretty picture art. That’s a part of the art world but there’s so much more. A lot of my introspection in life is informed by art.”

Caril intervenes: “We have a piece by Kashana Bush called Working Man’s Stack – naked bodies piled on top of each other, like a gymnastic troupe or circus. You expect them to have faces to the audience saying, look at us having fun. But they’re tired of what they’re doing. The expressions and angles of the body make you think. There are lots of symbolic things in there too.

Artist Graham Fletcher in conversation with a group at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

Artist Graham Fletcher in conversation with a group at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

“The point is, what does it do for me? It’s that contemplation that’s important. It’s not saying, this is pretty. It’s actually touching me. And that deepens my appreciation of life.”

As they try to spread their focus, Art Explore has evolved and grown in popularity. Still not the tourists but a huge database of thousands of people come along from their website, Meetups, Trip Advisor, their social sites and they’re also on NZ Tourism. The tours have extended to van trips to other cities. They’ve started Art Explore in Wellington, Dunedin and they’re about to start one in Christchurch. Guides are selected for their intimate knowledge of each region’s art scene, galleries and artists.

There are a variety of art presentations by visiting artists, specialised talks and discussion groups around exhibitions – for example, University of Auckland Associate Professor Linda Tyler demystified the recent Manifesto at the Auckland Art Gallery. Sometimes they go to auction houses and artist’s studios. They went to the Sculptureum in Matakana earlier this year and the Botannic Gardens Sculpture Walk. They even offer private tours. As they do their bit to balance the equation between sports and culture, Caril and Brian, get great pleasure from seeing ordinary people become more enlightened and knowledgeable about art.

“There is no requirement for anybody who comes on the tours to buy anything. For me as an organiser,” says Caril, “it means art is structured into my life and that’s just wonderful. It’s a deep gut fantastic!”

Check the ART EXPLORE programme or contact Caril or Brian on


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