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Putting Rotorua Back on the Arts Map

01 Nov 2021
Kellez Mcmanus has been chasing her dream job for years. Find out how she's using her kete full of life experience to make a difference at the Rotorua Arts Village.

Ko wai au, ki te taha o tōku pāpā

Ko Putauaki te maunga

Ko Rangitaiki te awa

Ko Kokohinau te marae

Ko te Pahipoto te hapū

Ko Mataatua te Waka

Ko Ngāti Awa me Tūhoe ngā iwi

Ki te taha o tōku māmā

Ko Ruawahia te maunga

Ko Te-Awa-o-te-atua te awa

Ko Rangiaohia te marae

Ko te Arawa te waka

Ko Rangitihi te tangata

Ko Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāti whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao ngā iwi


Think of the arts in Rotorua and you might first think of the long-established Te Puia New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute just out of town at Whakarewarewa.

That’s a mindset which Kellez Mcmanus, the recently-appointed director of The Rotorua Arts Village, wants to change.

“I want people to think of us first.”

The Arts Village, in Hinemaru Street not far from the Polynesian Pools and Rotorua lakefront, is a non-profit arts-based community centre established in 2002 in a group of three historic buildings.

Its stated vision is to make Rotorua “a vibrant, creative community, where art makes life good.”

Mcmanus explains that the Village caters to a wide range of different people and cultures, hosting workshops and exhibitions, and with studios and exhibition places for hire.

Among others, it is home to two major painting groups, a florists’ group and a large pottery club that’s currently holding its annual exhibition.

The Arts Village, Rotorua. Photo: Supplied.

Bringing in the community

Mcmanus started in the job about 10 weeks ago -  just two days before the latest COVID lockdown. That disrupted the changeover but she believes she has since made good progress in her goals of raising the Village’s profile within the Rotorua community, and strengthening its relationships with mana whenua and tangata whenua.

Having spent time as an educator in the alternative education sphere, one of Mcmanus’s major goals is to facilitate rangatahi to access art education and work opportunities.

She has reached out to local kura and her own community of artists, some of whom she says barely knew of the Village’s existence, to let them know what the Village can offer them as a venue for exhibitions, workshops and meetings.

“I like to think that I have let the community that I know, know more about what happens here, offering the Arts Village to accommodate them as well.”

Bay beginnings

Mcmanus’s whānau hails from Matata in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. 

The eldest of seven, she was schooled initially at a little convent school in Matata which her great-grandparents had also attended. “We were a big family so we kept that school going.”

The oldest of seven siblings, Kellez Mcmanus is pictured with her sister Hollie and dad, Anthony. Photo: Supplied.

Her secondary schooling was at Kawerau where they were a “mill family”, with her grandfather working at the paper mill and the kids getting their first taste of visual arts by drawing on the paper offcuts that were a perk of the job.

Working primarily in paint but also uku (clay), Mcmanus says she has “always” been an artist, making and selling her works and participating in both solo and joint exhibitions.

She has also worked in alternative education, teaching art at Te Taumata O Ngāti Whakaue Iho Ake, Rotorua, and Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau Hauora in Kawerau.

Those students are among the groups she has already brought to the Village since taking over, to give them experience in working with uku.

In 2017 she earned her degree in Māori Fine Arts from the Toimairangi School of Māori Visual Art, Heretaunga (Hastings) where she studied under the renowned visual artist and educator Sandy Adsett MNZM (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pāhauwera).

Getting the degree was “something I did for me, and to give my artwork a bit of ‘credit’ especially when I sell art,” she says.

Kellez Mcmanus, right rear, and her whānau - Daniel, left, Tachina, Carol, and George, gathered around one of her works, "Karepe," at a joint exhibition at Toimairangi.  Photo: Supplied.

Never give up

The Arts Village directorship - which she found advertised through The Big Idea - is a position Mcmanus had her eye on for some time, unsuccessfully applying for it about seven or eight years ago.

“This time around, I knew I had the qualifications and experience that I needed.

“It just looked like a great opportunity to go for and move on, away from the community work that I'd been doing for a long time.”

Mcmanus is never one to back away from a challenge - she’s proven herself a fighter.

The Mcmanus whānau show their disdain for cancer from her hospital room. Photo: Supplied.

"At the start of my art education, I was diagnosed with cancer in my womb. I took that as an opportunity and I really focused on my art education/journey. June Grant (a Te Arawa artist) was a huge inspiration for me as she went through her cancer journey. 

“This year in August, I am 7 years cancer-free. My journey made me really think about what's important to me and I love it with my entire soul - my whānau, my marae, my hapu, my iwi and my mahi toi."


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