Canterbury Society of Arts formed in 1880 on the 8th of July

A group of community-minded men had an initial meeting in late June 1880 to discuss how to organise and promote art within Canterbury.

Canterbury Society of Arts exhibition [1906] CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0007
They felt that the rapidly growing centre of Christchurch needed some form of cultural organisation, and Auckland and Dunedin already had Art Societies.

A sub-committee of three was elected to draft up the proposed rules for a Canterbury Society of Arts. On the 8th of July a General meeting was held at the Christchurch Public Library and the Rules of the Canterbury Society of Arts were approved. The Society had the aim of “…spreading a love of artistic work through the community” and the first exhibition was organised and held in early 1881.

The Annual Exhibition opening nights soon became the highlight of the social calendar which included music and entertainment. You can view some of the early Canterbury Society of Arts catalogues that we have digitised.

Over the years the Society developed and built a permanent collection, held regular programmes and events, faced social and financial difficulties, courted controversy, expanded their mandate from just fine art to include arts and crafts and (eventually) accepted contemporary styles. They acquired permanent space and moved, and completely re-invented themselves.

1980 marked the 100th anniversary of the Canterbury Society of Arts which resulted in an exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery and a catalogue with a history of the society. The catalogue for the 100th anniversary exhibition of the Society in 1980 can be accessed online.

Cover of The radical, the reactionary and the Canterbury Society of Arts 1880 - 1996

For an in-depth and updated look at the development of the Canterbury Society of Arts, and its change into the Centre of Contemporary Art (COCA Gallery), see Warren Feeney’s 2011 book The Radical, The Reactionary and the Canterbury Society of Arts 1880 – 1996.

Further information

Haere ra to the Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery

On Saturday while a goodly crowd watched the demolition of the Crowne Plaza, just a step down Durham Street another historically significant building was going down.

The Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery is a rather lovely red brick building that has long had an earthquake connection – that heavy duty strapping stood out against its striking brick facade.

Canterbury Society of Arts GalleryCanterbury Society of Arts GalleryCanterbury Society of Arts Gallery

Charlies Gates reported on the fate of these buildings in The Press on 17 March 2012: Repair cost dooms old building.

Asa a heritage listed building, Rarangi Taonga: the Register of Historic Places has detailed information on its history Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery (Former) – 282-286 Durham Street:

The Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery consists of two buildings – the first designed by Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort (1825-1898) in 1890. The second, erected next to the first, was designed by Richard Dacre Harman and completed in 1894.

I hadn’t realised this was two buildings, but in the 1921 photo below, you can see the stark windowless facade of the Benjamin Mountfort at right, and the more ornate Venetian Gothicism of the Richard Dacre Harman building.


Other significant points about this building:

  • The CSA’s first purpose-built premise designed by Mountfort in 1890 was the first art gallery to be built in Canterbury.
  • The CSA played a very significant role in the Canterbury art scene, with ‘The Group’, a circle of artists exhibiting there during the 1930s. Rita Angus, Evelyn Page and Doris Lusk were amongst the New Zealand painters associated with ‘The Group’.

Find out more: