At home with Wellington gallerist Jhana Millers

The owner of Jhana Millers Gallery offers insights on collecting art.

On the first floor of the heritage-rated Mibar Building in central Wellington is Jhana Millers Gallery, the capital’s newest commercial art space. With concrete floors and ceilings, and loads of natural light, it exhibits the work of artists whose creations are unmistakably their own. We spoke to its eponymous owner at her coastal home.

ABOVE Jhana and her husband, Simon Pannett, moved into their split-level 1970s home four years ago and love it for its unconventional spaces and sweeping view of Wellington’s wild south coast.

So, Jhana, what path led you to where you are now? I trained as a jeweller at Whitireia New Zealand, then completed a Master of Fine Arts at Massey University Wellington. While I was a student and young artist, I took on extra projects and did electives in various art- and design-related areas, which meant I gained skills not only in making art, but also in curating, installing, print and web design, presenting, writing, photography and project management.
I have experience exhibiting locally and internationally, and working and volunteering for many other galleries and organisations — including non-profit gallery 30upstairs, the Wellington Sculpture Trust and the Venice Biennale — and have recently co-organised the Fired Up: Festival of Ceramics in Wellington, which I feel makes me perfectly suited to running my own. 

ABOVE The first work the couple bought after opening the gallery in 2018 was this one by Kāryn Taylor, Square Circle Halved. “It’s the first red work I saw of Kāryn’s and we both found it completely absorbing,” says Jhana. “The red of the work fits with the exposed timber of our house and sits between two large windows that frame our view of the rockpools.”

Is there a theme that informs your programme of shows? There’s no overarching aesthetic. With my background in object art, I’m interested in a wide mix of work, including jewellery, sculpture, ceramics, video, textiles, painting and photography.
Because the gallery’s new, we’re able to support a lot of younger artists alongside more established ones. I like the idea of being able to grow the gallery with the artists. We also show a lot of female artists, as in our upcoming presentation at the Auckland Art Fair of Kāryn Taylor, Jaime Jenkins and Moniek Schrijer. This isn’t necessarily intentional, but it reflects the current state of emerging artists, with the majority of students graduating from art school being women.

ABOVE These Surface Studies pendants by jeweller Moniek Schrijer were to go on display at the Auckland Art Fair.

What local artists do you have on your books? We currently have 10 artists from all over Aotearoa on our roster and are slowly building on it. Four are based in Wellington: Erica van  Zon, Harry Culy, Moniek Schrijer and Christopher Ulutupu. Young painter Lucy O’Doherty is our only artist from overseas; she lives and works in Sydney. 

ABOVE A Parison pendant light by Cheshire Architects for Resident hangs above the couple’s mid-century teak dining suite and Washer bowl by Jaime Jenkins.

What do you think are the most exciting things happening in New Zealand art?
I tend to focus my energy on the artists I work with and am always excited by the greater opportunities they’re receiving. Some recent highlights have been Ayesha Green winning last year’s National Contemporary Art Award; Christopher Ulutupu winning an international residency in Germany; Elisabeth Pointon and Harry Culy showing at City Gallery, Wellington; and Moniek Schrijer exhibiting in Munich. Another young Māori artist I work with, Nikau Hindin, is gaining international recognition for reviving the Māori art of tapa.
I enjoy seeing new graduate works and run an annual graduate exhibition each year. Looking ahead, the New Zealand presentation at the 2021 Venice Biennale with Yuki Kihara will be a big moment for Aotearoa. It’s the first time an artist of Pacific descent has been chosen to represent New Zealand in Venice. 

ABOVE Jhana on the deck with Jaime’s stoneware Pillar 1/2 Round stool/table/object.

What advice do you have for budding art collectors? How you start collecting art does depend on your budget. If you can afford to buy work by more established artists, then you’re in a good starting position, but if you’re on more of a budget, I’d suggest a mix of mid-career and young artists. There are a lot of very talented artists in Aotearoa, so it might take a bit of time to find the right fit. Buy what you love, because you need to live with it, and take your time, do your research, go to different galleries to get a sense of what really appeals to you. Go to the exhibition openings, talk to the gallerists and artists about the work.
Galleries offer layby or My Art interest-free art loans to makes it easier to pay off a larger purchase over time. Although it can be exciting buying from the secondary market, there’s currently no mechanism in Aotearoa for artists to receive royalties from secondary sales of their work, so if you want to support the artists, the best way to do it is to buy direct from the galleries that support them. 

ABOVE The couple’s home was built to maximise the outlook, so their imminent renovation will also be based around that. “We fit the art in around the views,” says Jhana. “For instance, I love the Seascape works by Harry Culy that were in the City Gallery, Wellington, recently — they look so calming in people’s homes. However, because we have sea views, I’d be more likely to purchase one of Harry’s urban landscape or portrait works.” Pictured from left are vessels by Steve Fullmer (left) and Glenn Barkley, and Noodles by Erica van Zon.

What pieces do you have your eye on at the moment? There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down! I would like to own at least one piece by all of the artists I represent, and plan to slowly work towards that. Other artists I’m interested in are Elisabeth Pointon, Nikau Hindin, Séraphine Pick, Simon Morris, Tony de Lautour and Joe Sheehan, and I have a birthday coming up, so perhaps my husband will make a trip to Karl Fritsch’s studio down the road…

ABOVE Lamp by Tim Larkin.

What else is coming up for Jhana Millers Gallery? We’re continuing with a roster of several solo exhibitions — Harry Culy and Will Bennett in May and July respectively — and curated group shows in the gallery. I’m particularly looking forward to the Auckland Art Fair in April and presenting work in a variety of media: Kāryn Taylor’s wall-based acrylic works, Jaime Jenkins’ ceramics and Moniek Schrijer’s jewellery. Last year’s fair was a real success for my gallery and a major opportunity to meet and introduce our artists’ work to a wide range of art enthusiasts and collectors.
In June, we’re heading to an art fair in Melbourne, Spring1883, and working on a large solo project by Māori artist Ayesha Green.

ABOVE Nude by Caitlin Devoy.

Do you have any tips for visitors to the Auckland Art Fair? With so many booths and artworks to view, it can be a little overwhelming, so if you’re serious about purchasing a specific artist’s work, it’d be useful to check the map and plan ahead. Otherwise, I’d suggest having a look at everything first, taking pictures and notes of works of interest, then going back for a better look.
Take advantage of the social opportunities at the fair, artist talks, tours and special projects. Check the gallery website online and ask about the storeroom, because what’s on display is just a small selection of what’s available. Don’t be shy — ask questions. We love talking about our artists and their work.;

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Thomas Seear-Budd

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