Art lover, literature buff, environmentalist, pathfinder – Monica Brewster was a woman of the world, active in causes that enriched her city and community. She helped found several local New Plymouth organisations, but her greatest legacy is no doubt the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, named in her honour.
Born into a Taranaki colonial family in 1886, she was the youngest daughter of Frances Elizabeth Atkinson and New Plymouth barrister Clement Govett. Her maternal grandfather, Sir Harry Atkinson, was prime minister of New Zealand for five terms, and her paternal grandfather, Henry Govett, was vicar of St Mary’s Church and first archdeacon of Taranaki.
With such a privileged and powerful background, it is hardly a wonder Monica became a force in her own right. Access to private schooling and European travel fuelled her interest in art and literature, while visits to international art galleries exposed her to the Modern movement and other liberal currents.
She was independently wealthy as the main beneficiary of her father’s estate, enabling her time to pursue her passions. But what really distinguished her was her keen intellect and foresight, which she used to help set the course for organisations she was involved in.
The Taranaki Women’s Club, was her first major commitment, and in 1926 it opened with the objective ‘to provide a centre for women interested in social, public, professional, scientific and artistic affairs’. She was elected president in 1931, and represented the club at the National Council of Women. She later went on to help found the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, a magnificent public garden, drawing on her horticultural and environmental interests.
She made herself unpopular in 1939 when she and her close friend, political activist and schoolteacher Elsie Andrews, declared themselves conscientious objectors leading up to the Second World War. Expressing her views openly in the Taranaki Herald like this displays her independent thinking and her interest in the wellbeing of her community.
After her husband died in 1952, Monica lived a quieter and more private life. The couple did not have children, and so her cultural and political interests remained a focus. In 1962, in her mid-seventies, she transferred £50,000 by trust deed to the City of New Plymouth to establish and develop a public art gallery. The gift financed the purchase and conversion of the Regent Cinema on Queen Street, New Plymouth, where the gallery remains today. In 1970, the year the gallery opened, she made a second bequest for £72,000 to start a permanent collection.
They were extraordinary gifts, and even more so for their vision, as this was the first art museum established in New Zealand dedicated to contemporary art. Her trust deed, which underpins the Govett-Brewster to this day, and the 1968 collection policy development she oversaw, focus on new forms of art and sculpture fostering the development of artists from New Zealand and the Pacific Rim.
Monica died of pneumonia, aged 87, just three years after the gallery opened.
If the Govett-Brewster is a pathfinder today, almost half a century on, it is because Monica was a pathfinder; a futurist known for her liberal values and independent thought. Her vision for a contemporary art museum has provided a window to the world for the small coastal community of New Plymouth, and become one of the most respected art institutions on the Pacific Rim.