Although he has made many appearances on New Zealand TV screens, Hamish Keith is perhaps best known as a writer on art — especially An Introduction to New Zealand Painting, the 1969 book he wrote with Gordon H Brown, which sparked much debate over its emphasis on the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light”. Keith's long and influential career boasts many notable achievements; as a broadcaster, scriptwriter, graphic designer, arts administrator and commentator on — and advocate for — the unique culture of Aotearoa.
The son of a creative entrepreneur and studio photographer, Keith grew up in Dunedin and, later Christchurch. He emerged from the same cultural milieu as artists Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk and Quentin MacFarlane. Born in 1936, he was 17 years younger than McCahon when the artist was employed by Keith’s father to make jewellery. McCahon would feature prominently throughout Keith’s life, from the epiphany he had in front of McCahon's The Marys at the Tomb, to being a work colleague at the Auckland Art Gallery, to Keith's role in convincing Canberra's National Gallery to purchase Victory Over Death 2, to the time he reluctantly fired the artist from the Arts Council for not being "objective enough" about funding decisions.
After his schooling at Christ’s College in Christchurch, Keith attended the Canterbury School of Fine Art, graduating in 1956. After developing a passion for painting and sculpture, he later decided his talents were better suited to writing about art.
In 1958 he embarked on a career at the Auckland Art Gallery under director Peter Tomory. Employed first as a 'student assistant', he rose to a position akin to Head Curator. Over 12 years at the gallery he contributed to many developments, cataloguing important collections, advising on building extensions, making innovative purchases, and curating important shows such as the first exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art in Australia (in 1965). He also helped realign the gallery's exhibitions more towards the interests of the audience. "What was the point of delivering an audience to the museum if the museum delivered nothing to them?"
Keith became a strong advocate for the importance of art (and Māori art) in Kiwi culture, and for recognising contemporary artists. He worked towards gaining an influence so he could improve its funding structures.
A six-month visit to the United States in 1967, to study art institutions and galleries, was important for Keith on many levels. On a Carnegie Corporation fellowship, he arrived in San Francisco during the ‘summer of love’ and immersed himself in the counterculture. A chance encounter at a party with Country Joe McDonald (of band Country Joe and The Fish) made him question whether his chosen profession — art historian — could play a role in changing the world. After witnessing poverty and racial injustice in the US he returned to New Zealand with a new determination to implement change for the better, and that meant entering politics.
After winning the candidacy for Labour in the Remuera electorate, he ended up working with Norman Kirk and innovative PR man Bob Harvey; Keith designed the Labour Party logo for the 1969 election campaign. His design work also included the opening and closing credits for John O’Shea’s 1964 film Runaway.
Neither Keith nor Labour won that election, and though he was asked to run again in 1972 he declined the offer. However in 1975 he was appointed Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council; over the next six years he set about implementing major changes to the way the arts were administered in New Zealand.
New Zealand was still very much in the colonial era of reproducing the culture of England. Officially, the arts considered important were opera and ballet. Keith changed all that by introducing a policy of funding emerging young artists, and supporting Māori and Pacific arts through the 1978 establishment of MASPAC, the Council for Māori and South Pacific Arts. Keith’s reforms helped rescue Māori art from being relegated to an "anthropological artefact", and his advocacy for Māori culture as a living, breathing entity played an important role in encouraging contemporary Māori artists. In 1979 he began negotiations with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for them to display landmark exhibition Te Māori.
Another achievement while at the Arts Council was his role in approving council funding of $100,000 towards 1978 feature film Sleeping Dogs. The film's success helped kick-start the modern New Zealand film industry; the money was returned.
Keith had begun working on short documentaries about the arts in the early 60s, while at the Auckland Art Gallery. In 1962 he made what is thought to be the first TV documentary on New Zealand art. Waterfall to Waterfall took as its starting point two paintings of waterfalls completed almost two centuries apart, to offer a brief history of New Zealand art. Later that decade, he hosted a six-part radio series on local art. After leaving the gallery he hosted a weekly radio interview program, Guest of Honour, which ran from 1970 to 1974. The guests included musician Ravi Shankar and broadcaster David Frost.
Set in a North Island forestry town, Pukemanu (1971-72) was New Zealand’s first ongoing drama series. Keith wrote four episodes, invited on board because his column in The Listener had called for more genuinely local drama content on television. Legendary actor Ian Mune made his screen debut in Keith’s first episode 'A Soft Answer', as a trespassing truckie. Keith was among those keen to explore bicultural issues on the show, which he did on Feltex award-winning episode 'Charle's Rock'. Another of his episodes, 'The Match' explored the challenges of being a Māori solo mother in a male-dominated town.
From this experience Keith was invited to share the writing of drama series Section 7 (1972) with Michael Noonan. Built around three probation officers in central Auckland, the half-hour series explored urban crime stories. It also offered Mune an early leading role on-screen. Keith went on to write two episodes of Australian cop show Matlock Police. He also contributed reports to arts show Review.
In 1982 Keith worked with Review director Bruce Morrison on Profiles, a series of six half-hour documentaries about Kiwi artists. Keith handled the interviews with Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont; he describes working with Fomison and Clairmont as “feral”. The crew had to devise a way to capture the artists talking, as a formal interview before the camera was not the most productive approach. "I sat Fomison down at one end of his kitchen table, a bottle of whiskey capped on the mantle behind me, the sound man turned the Nagra [sound recorder] on. I said, ‘Talk. When we have talked enough, the cap comes off’. It worked beautifully".
In 1983 Keith wrote and presented two-part documentary The City and the Suburb, in which he explored housing in New Zealand through the 20th century. Keith made the unpopular claim that town planning had done more harm than good, "distorting the holistic nature of dynamic communities". TVNZ subtitled the programme ‘A Personal View’. Keith wrote the script for 1984 documentary Treasures from the Land: The Crafts of New Zealand, and did stints analysing the media for Column Comment and Fourth Estate. In 1992 he found himself in the headlines, after winning a defamation case against TVNZ for a sketch on comedy show More Issues. He also presented compilations of short films for TV series Kiwi Shorts.
Award-winning six-part TV series The Big Picture (2007) is arguably the pinnacle of Keith’s broadcasting career. A comprehensive, imaginative telling of the story of New Zealand art, it is filled with fascinating detail and insightful concepts that reflect not only Keith’s expertise on the subject, but his charm as a presenter. Keith was nominated for a Qantas TV Award for his work, and the show was named Best Factual Series.
Hamish Keith was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1981. He was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013. His life’s work has been dedicated to the notion of a unique and original culture in Aotearoa. He has worked tirelessly as an arts administrator with a reformist’s zeal, committed to the recognition of Māori art as a living, vital force. He has been a broadcaster of originality and passion who has made his own unique contribution to local television.
Profile written by Paul Judge; published on 21 May 2020
Hamish Keith, Native Wit (Auckland: Random House, 2008)
Hamish Keith and Gordon H Brown, An Introduction to New Zealand Painting (Auckland: Collins, 1969)
'Hamish Keith' (Video interview) Cultural Icons website. Loaded 5 April 2011. Accessed 21 May 2020
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Martin Durrant 'Arts funding and support - Changing reasons for government support' Te Ara website. Loaded 22 October 2014. Accessed 21 May 2020
Paul Little, 'Why 1967 was so significant for Hamish Keith’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 17 September 2017
‘The Big Picture - Episode Five’ (Television documentary) Director Paul Swadel (Filmwork, TV One, 2007)
‘The City and The Suburb’ (Television documentary) Producer Bill Saunders (TVNZ, 1983)
‘Profiles – Tony Fomison’ (Television documentary) Director Bruce Morrison (Anson Associates, 1981)