Arrowtown’s art-world doyenne

No one has done more to put Arrowtown on the map as an art destination than Nadene Milne. She talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about how she ended up opening her first gallery, and why she donned a chicken suit in Queenstown in the ’90s

A schoolgirl sports star in the ’80s, a pioneer female snowboarder, marketer and event organiser in Queenstown in the ’90s and Arrowtown’s original art gallery owner in the early 2000s, who added a sister Christchurch gallery in 2016.

We’re talking about Arrowtowner Nadene Milne, nowadays one of New Zealand’s most-respected gallerists, who represents art-world heavy-hitters like Max Gimblett and Gretchen Albrecht.

Milne grew up in the Wellington region, near Porirua, in ‘‘quite a multicultural and very creative environment’’, which helped fuel her later interest in the visual arts.

At school, however, she focused on sport — a national age-group gymnastics champ, she was also a junior long jump record-holder.

‘‘Academically, I kind of got through,’’ she says.

She joined the workforce, then studied at Massey University, then, after working in Japan for a while, came to Queenstown with some mates for a six-week snowboarding holiday in 1990.

‘‘It was a really fantastic season, and then I stayed for a fantastic summer.’’

Milne was one of the resort’s first female snowboarders, and was briefly sponsored by Burton.

After working at some hospo spots and DJ’ing for radio station QFM, she started a small ad agency, Virtual Communications, whose clients included AJ Hackett Bungy.

She produced a weekly snowboard video, Board Vision, screened at the Red Rock bar.

Among events she organised was an end-of-winter party, ‘The Thaw’, where she dressed in a chicken suit and threw jelly at punters off the bar.

She also ran a fundraising relay and party for climbers Bruce Grant and Kim Logan, ahead of their K2 climb in the Himalayas — sadly, the former perished on the way down — and she started the Southern Lakes women’s triathlon.

Through her then-boyfriend, a contemporary art collector, she met some NZ gallerists, who captivated her interest.

After that relationship broke up, she returned to Wellington, enrolling at Victoria University which was ‘‘on the very front edge of that digital revolution from an academic point of view’’.

She also worked part-time for an art-leasing business, her new son tucked under her arm.

Missing the freedom of living in the Whakatipu, she returned in 2000, settling in Arrowtown.

Using her earlier art-world connections, she bravely opened a gallery the following year in the historic Pritchard’s building, which developers John Guthrie and Bryan Collie had just restored.

Milne originally called it Ngāumatau, after a Wellington bay she’d lived in.

‘‘I didn’t come from a traditional arts background, but I think that was a huge blessing because it gave me a tremendous freedom to do things if I’d known better I wouldn’t have done.’’

One innovation was hosting artists’ talks at exhibition openings at nearby Dorothy Browns Cinema, which continues to this day.

‘‘One of the art curators said mine was the most remote dealer gallery in the world, ‘how can you do this?’

‘‘But I knew with my university study there was going to be that opportunity to work remotely, so I knew I could have my cake and eat it.’’

As she gained confidence, she renamed the gallery after herself, then abbreviated it to ‘NMG’.

Very sadly, her dad, visiting from Australia, died after falling from the gallery balcony in 2014.

Partly from the ensuing trauma, and partly because her three sons were all being schooled in Christchurch, she also opened a gallery in the
Garden City which has been very successful, too.

‘‘I like the anonymity there,’’ she says.

Still, she’s very much enjoyed living in Arrowtown, which has become a high-quality visitor destination and, in many ways thanks to her, something of an art destination.

Many of those visiting her gallery will be unaware of the relationships she’s evolved with major NZ contemporary artists over 20 years, and with collectors of their art around NZ, and beyond.

For her, art’s fascination lies in the stories behind the work, and how artists reflect issues of the time.

‘‘I just think I’ve been gutsy.

‘‘I’ve sort of followed my intuition and my heart, in terms of my passion, but also I think I’ve been extremely fortunate.’’

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