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Big Questions Aimed At City Gallery Wellington

24 Apr 2023

Rumblings out of council meetings and from sources within Experience Wellington have prompted Andrew Wood to revisit the current status of the controversially-restructured gallery.

City Gallery Wellington. Photo: Experience Wellington.

It’s time for another check-in with what’s happening at City Gallery Wellington since the much-protested restructuring of Experience Wellington, the Wellington Museums Trust.

If you recall, this restructuring involved forcing out one of New Zealand’s most esteemed curators, Robert Leonard, to make room for a much needed Senior Curator (Toi Māori) – a position they have not yet managed to recruit for, and at the time of writing, is in its second round of advertising.

Leonard has since returned to his old position as Director of the highly respected Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. 

Furthermore, Awhimai Reynolds - appointed as Te Tūhono Reo Director Māori Engagement - lasted about a year and then moved on to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, filling a position of Senior Project Manager. Reynold’s position has not been advertised at Experience Wellington.

“A Māori dimension is very important to us as we strive to embed te ao Māori into everything we do,” responds Experience Wellington Chief Executive Dr Sarah Rusholme when asked about the current situation by The Big Idea, “and a growing number of our exhibitions and events enable our audiences and our people to see, feel and connect with te ao Māori. 

"We are implementing our first Māori Engagement Strategy, Tūhono Ake, which was developed late last year by our Tūhono Reo Director Māori Engagement, who finished their role earlier this year.

“We have not advertised to replace this role yet, but we are working closely with Wellington City Council and our Council-Controlled Organisation colleagues to consider how we can work together to access these much needed and much sought after skills, and we are fortunate to be able to seek advice from our Kaumātua and Trustee Peter Jackson.” (Not the director, another Peter Jackson).

Sources within the organisation tell of an unusually high staff turnover in the last few years throughout Experience Wellington. 

Dr Rushmore responds “our staff turnover is in line with previous years and we are comfortable with this. Turnover generally relates to family commitments, career progression or relocation. 

"We are particularly pleased with internal mobility, with team members taking up secondments and promotions, and other team members returning to us after time away working at other organisations and we have been delighted to welcome staff seconded from other organisations such as Te Herenga Waka Victoria University.”

Money and minutes

Looking at the minutes and reports for the Wellington City Council’s Long-term Plan, Finance, and Performance Committee meeting on 23 February this year (pictured below), Experience Wellington seems to be in some alarming financial trouble. This is, understandably, primarily a result of the pandemic.

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“Along with our colleagues in the gallery and museum sector, Experience Wellington is navigating the challenges of the post-COVID-19 environment and we are focussed on making sure arts, culture and heritage that reflect our people and places is accessible to everyone in Wellington and future generations at all of our sites: Te Whare Toi City Gallery Wellington, Te Waka Huia o ngā Taonga Tuko Iho Wellington Museum, Te Ara Whanui ki te Rangi Space Place, Nōku te Ao, Capital E, the Cable Car Museum and Nairn Street Cottage.”

Despite Wellington having a very good December 2022, with tourists spending $34 million (the largest international spend since pre-2018) and a $104m visitor spend (the largest that year with the exception of WoW in October), WCC is having to pump even more money into Experience Wellington.

Space Place - also part of Experience Wellington - is getting an extra boost, though that is listed separately from the overall Experience Wellington boost.

While the draft budget proposes an across-the-board 4% increase on all Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs) operational grants, the amended substantive shows that figure being doubled to 8% for Experience Wellington, and Zealandia along with a 10% boost for Wellington Zoo. Meanwhile the WellingtonNZ grant boosts are cut back to 3% and Destination Wellington loses its boost altogether. 

The boost is unsustainable long term - and it is proposed to fund this through; an 0.01% increase on top of the predicted 12.2% rates increase; the deferral of amended substantive new investment unless there is a legislative, contractual, safety or services obligation; by tapping previous annual surpluses; and potentially a handful of new fees.

While this clearly reflects broader financial issues with WCC’s CCOs, Experience Wellington gets singled out. On the agenda under 2.2 Quarter 2 Performance Report we find:

“12. Note that Wellington Museums Trust (Experience Wellington) faces a significant financial challenge in the current financial year, and it is expected that Council will need to provide additional financial support for operational (opex) costs; 

“13. Note that any requirement for additional budget relating to Wellington Museums Trust (Experience Wellington) will be addressed at this Committee through the Quarter Three (Q3) report, when there is greater clarity on the overall year-end forecast position; and: 

“14. Note this report supports the governance and monitoring oversight of the LTP by the Kōrau Tōtōpū | Long-Term-Plan, Finance and Performance Committee (the LTPF&P Committee)”

Experience Wellington’s figures for the second quarter of the financial year are as follows, in percentages of the total annual target.* 

  • 59% of target for onsite visitor numbers
  • 79% for virtual visitors
  • 100% for social media (yay social media, I guess, but it’s worth nothing if it doesn't generate spend)
  • Public programmes is, for some reason, not available
  • 55% trading revenue
  • 43% grants
    although 119% spend per visit.

On these results, Rusholme states "Experience Wellington reached 59% of its full year target for onsite visitor numbers by the end of December, six months into the financial year. Our team has welcomed more than 246,000 visitors since the start of the financial year in July. Our second quarter visitor numbers were particularly strong with a total of 146,892 visitors across our sites exceeding our quarterly target by 57%.

"After six months of the financial year, Experience Wellington has exceeded its target and met 75% of its full year target for virtual visitors, this is another positive result at this stage in the year.

"Our trading revenue and spend are also tracking well."

In their report to the committee, Experience Wellington lists their primary financial issues as:

  • Long-tail of COVID-19
  • Rising costs: inflation, fair pay
  • Challenging fundraising environment
  • Building issues: HVAC, lift & leaks [these specifically effecting City Gallery]

We should also note that the entire Civic Square site is going through large scale redevelopment, which poses some access issues. Building issues likely refers to the Wellington Museum building being declared earthquake prone earlier this year. 

Funding conundrum

In addition to Council funding, in the case for City Gallery for example, further funding might come from Creative New Zealand (which has its own problems), corporate sponsorship, and donations from the City Gallery Wellington Foundation (essentially the “friends of the gallery”).

CCOs are generally meant to be self-funding as much as possible, while Council provides core grants and remains at arm’s length.

Have those other sources have dried up?

“The impact of the pandemic and rising costs does make for a constrained fundraising environment,” says Rusholme. 

“Individuals and organisations are willing to give but it takes time to establish philanthropic relationships. Experience Wellington is a charity, but general awareness of our charitable status is low. 

"We are working to make that message more prominent and actively asking visitors who have enjoyed their time at our sites to consider making a donation.”

But what happened to those philanthropic relationships that were already in place? 

Although the restructuring was completed in 2021, might that have had an impact on the good will? 


Rusholme (above) states “we showed a $69,613 profit in the financial documents tabled at the Long-Term Plan Finance and Performance Committee on 23 February. Our restructure was completed in June 2021, so our current budget has no impact on that work or staff recruitment. 

"As we begin to emerge from the pandemic - and visitor numbers steadily increase - we have started to roll out our retail and venue hire strategy and we are also focusing on other revenue streams such as fundraising.”

A well-placed anonymous source within the organisation claims this profit was actually the product of an emergency internal slash and burn of budgets across Experience Wellington to get the organisation into the black for presentation to the committee.

It would also appear that restructuring left some pretty hefty scars nonetheless. 

As early as May 2021, Alan Judge, who has been involved with the City Gallery Wellington for over 20 years, as the Chair of accounting firm EY (a major sponsor of the gallery), a trustee and Chair of the City Gallery Wellington Foundation, and these days as an individual patron, described the fallout:

“A leading international art institution has put any loans to City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi on hold, as has a major New Zealand collection.

“Our universities have firmly denounced the proposal, one withdrawing interns in curatorial practice on the basis that the Gallery will no longer provide a suitable learning environment under the proposed structure.

“Potential funders and sponsors of a major exhibition proposed for later [in 2021] are putting their commitment on hold until the outcome of this restructuring is known. The implication is that if it proceeds, their funding commitment will not.”

From anonymous sources within Experience Wellington, it appears that the New Zealand collection was the Chartwell Collection, and the university was Te Herenga Waka Victoria University. 

Rusholme responds:

“City Gallery is working with the Chartwell Trust to present an exhibition of their work in 2024 to recognise the Trust’s 50th anniversary. Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington remains a partner of Experience Wellington, sharing expertise and learning opportunities across the two organisations.”

City Gallery Wellington. Photo: Experience Wellington.

Looking back at Wellington City Council’s August 2021 Aho Tini 2030 Arts, Culture and Creativity Strategy and Action Plan documents, it’s unlikely the public could have seen any of this coming. 

It was all anodyne abstractions about accessibility, inclusiveness, creativity, and far greater involvement at every level for Māori and Pasifika - all laudable things - but so far, Experience Wellington has not delivered. 

Indeed, in the entire policy outline presented to the public, City Gallery Wellington - the Council’s flagship visual arts venue - barely gets mentioned.

Dr Rusholme concludes: “Wellington City Council’s Aho Tini 2030 strategy plays an important role in guiding the mahi of its arts, culture and heritage council-controlled organisations. 

"Experience Wellington outlines its activity and alignment with the principles of Aho Tini in its annual Statement of Intent which will be available in July, and City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi is a vital part of that.”

Clearly an area of concern - budget wise - future plans need to be based on what money Experience Wellington can actually guarantee getting because obviously it’s either not available or they’re not doing a very good job getting it. 

Likewise, the WCC needs to ensure that as well as the good feels and cultural intangibles in their policy, that they put something measurable in there too.


*A previous version of the story incorrectly presenting quarterly targets as annual targets - this has been updated and we regret the error.