Widely regarded as among the finest provincial art galleries in New Zealand, the Sarjeant Gallery was established from the bequest of Henry Sarjeant (1830-1912) and the efforts of Sarjeant's widow, Ellen Agnes Stewart, both of whom were inspired by their love of art and of the Whanganui region. It was decided to place the new gallery on a prominent site overlooking the town that had been reserved for public buildings since 1875. The Wanganui Borough Council called a national competition to design the gallery in what was to be the new civic centre. The competition was run under the auspices of the New Zealand Institute of Architects with Samuel Hurst Seager, a notable Christchurch-based architect, adjudicating. The winner was Donald Hosie, a young architect articled to the Dunedin-based firm of Edmund Anscombe and Associates. Hosie, just 21, was conscripted in 1916 to fight in World War One and died in France at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Edmund Anscombe took over supervision of the construction and the Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, laid the foundation stone in September 1917. The building was officially opened by Prime Minister William Massey in September 1919.
The then Whanganui mayor Charles Mackay had championed the building's construction, which was reflected in the inclusion of his name on the foundation stone. However, Mackay's name was removed after he was publicly exposed as homosexual, following his shooting of his blackmailer in 1920, which resulted in his imprisonment. He was removed from office, estranged from his family (including his wife and children) and left the country after he got out of jail, only to be killed working as a reporter in Germany in 1929. In the lead-up to the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986, local queer activists lobbied for the restoration of his name on the foundation stone, which occurred in 1985.
Mackay has become a leading figure in the history of queer lives in Aotearoa New Zealand, a tragic example of a life blighted by homophobia and the criminalisation of male homosexuality. Yet his story has been taken up by activists and historians in an act of posthumous rehabilitation, ensuring he is not forgotten. Today Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua is a safe space for queer communities.
Sarjeant Gallery, Queen's Park, Whanganui, Manawatu-Wanganui 4500, New Zealand