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The Art of Perseverance

Hundertwasser Arts Centre. Photo: Tessa Paton.
After years of setbacks, The Lowdown gets the reaction of satisfaction from those who brought the Hundertwasser Arts Centre to life, while celebrating other galleries & exhibitions milestones.


It’s a feel good story almost a decade in the making.

Mention the Hundertwasser Arts Centre project among the entrenched members of the visual arts community - and you will get a reaction. For years, it was a project that felt like the finish line was always in sight, but never quite close enough to reach.

But as of last weekend, the dream of a completed, ready to visit and open for business arts destination in Whangārei is now a reality.

We’re used to things being delayed in the past few years in particular, but the level of perseverance in this project is quite astonishing.

Building something of this magnitude from scratch isn’t easy - or cheap. But it’s also been a political football, dropped altogether at one stage by the Whangārei District Council and only kept alive by an indefatigable group of volunteers. How many art galleries can you think of that have been the sole subject of a local referendum?

Friedensreich Hundertwasser is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated European artists. He may be Vienna’s best known artist, but he lived in the Bay of Islands for 24 years and was a New Zealand citizen,  committing himself to the preservation of our natural surroundings before he left our shores in 2000, the same year he passed.

In fact, the art centre that bears his name was opened on the 22nd anniversary of his passing.

On a local front, much excitement and pride is also generated from the inclusion of the Wairau Māori Art Gallery as part of the Hundertwasser Art Centre, created to provide New Zealand with its first public Māori art gallery solely dedicated to profiling Māori artists and curators.

Benjamin Pittman, Nigel Borrell, Ken Couper, Kathleen Drumm, Richard Smart and Pam Tothill cutting the ribbon at the opening. Photo: Tessa Paton.

Whangārei Art Museum Chief Executive Kathleen Drumm told The Lowdown “we have opened to capacity crowds (400+ per day in COVID environment) since opening. Sales of tickets and at our museum shop have been terrific -  exceeding expectations. We have experienced significant forward bookings.

“We have received consistent positive feedback on the uplifting and rich experience we have on offer. 

“People have come here to Whangārei from all over the country. We have heard from several sources that local accommodation bookings are strong.”

Donna Tupaea-Petero, Pihepihe (2007) at Wairau Māori Art Gallery.

One of those who have made the trip is Linda Tyler, the University of Auckland’s Convenor of Museums and Cultural Heritage, who described the opening as a “mood of celebration”.

She told The Lowdown “although Whangārei is not where Hundertwasser lived during his New Zealand years, they have certainly done justice to his association with Northland with this wonderful new art gallery facing onto the Town Basin. From the glorious gold dome on the top down to the recycled bricks and timbers of the floor the building is a gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art.

“The Wairau Māori Art Gallery has pride of place on the ground floor, and the opening exhibition curated by Nigel Borell is a glorious showcase of old and new works by contemporary Māori artists who hail from Te Tai Tokerau. Very unusual large colourfield orange and green Zero series Ralph Hotere paintings which face Emare Karaka and Selwyn Muru canvases across the room. 

Reuben Paterson, The Protea (2014-2018) at Wairau Māori Art Gallery.

“Adjacent are digital works by Nova Paul and Leilani Kake, shining surfaces by Israel Birch, photographs by John Miller, and textile pieces by Te Hemo Ata Henare and Maureen Lander. Though the gallery is small, space is used very effectively in the hanging, presided over by Dr Benjamin Pittman who has set up office in the gallery until a Director is appointed.”

Waxing lyrically about the authentic way the museum has honoured Hundertwasser’s connection with nature and conservation initiative, including the afforested roof and “tree tenants” growing out of balconies, the latest addition to our cultural community has clearly left its mark on Tyler.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Strange Encounters (1994).

“I am going back again this Friday as COVID conditions are currently restricting entry to 60 minutes at a time, but there is still plenty to see.”

Reviews like this must be music to the ears of those who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into ensuring this centre made it to that finish line.

Andrew Garratt’s personal investment in this project has been immense - one of the many volunteers who never gave up on the project.

SInce his interest first piqued back in 2012 (by his wife Jenny Hill) as part of the original lobby group, he’s been the Project Director during the Fundraising and Construction consenting phase (June 2015 – mid 2018), the Community Coordinator during construction and is now “effectively the project handyman and general support” as well as Chair of the Prosper Northland Trust, that picked up the project when the Council originally kicked it to touch.

While quick to point out he’s just a “cog in the works”, it’s people like Garratt whose contribution cannot be underrated - he quit his job in 2015 to concentrate on the referendum.

He told The Lowdown “from the time I was first involved, there always seemed to be major challenges that could stop the project.  Whether it be having to win a referendum or foundation design changes that substantially affected the required funds to start construction, there always seemed to be something keeping me awake at two in the morning.”

After the referendum, Garratt was part of “an amazing core team of around 20 volunteers” that named themselves the Project Action Team (PAT), raising millions of dollars and getting the building a consent.  

“None of us had fundraising experience of note but we had passion, a common vision and commitment. We all ‘owned’ the project and we were all focussed on one thing. While I may have had doubts myself at times, the team as a whole didn’t.  The team made it happen.

The Hundertwasser Arts Centre. Photo: Greg Hay.

“I can’t emphasise enough how the community got on board to support us. This stemmed from individuals donating, to businesses giving in kind, philanthropists, central and local government support, funding trusts, artists donating art, volunteers, overseas support. We had volunteer teams running the campaign and fundraising shop for 3 years 6 days a week, chippers chipping 38000 bricks for 18 months, de-nailers de-nailing 4500m of timber every Saturday for weeks.

“I am extremely proud of the building and everything that goes with it. It is a staggering piece of art and architecture, built by locals, some of whom have become artists themselves in order to do the work. People who see it for the first time will be gobsmacked by its power, magnitude, detail and artistry.

“Everyone who contributed in some way, whatever it was, owns a piece of that building and they should be very proud of it. It is a symbol of what can be done when we think how we can – not why we can’t.

The first visitors make their way into the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery. Photo: Tessa Paton.

“It brings a clear, positive identity and that signifies Whangarei as a place to be. I hope it encourages artists to be inspired, with them and other businesses being able to capitalise on the stimulating environment generated.

“Now the building is complete and operating it is enormously satisfying to see the people’s reactions. Some are speechless and in awe of the building. The result is what can be achieved by a community when it is united.”

Reason for Season

Season Co-Directors Jade Townsend & Francis McWhannell in front of Neke Moa's work as part of their opening show, Hono. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

It certainly feels like a time of rejuvenation in the visual arts - growth has been hard to imagine in the creative community in this time of pandemic.

As of today (Thursday 24 February), there’s a new kid on the block in the Auckland gallery space, with the opening of Season.

It’s the brainchild of two highly respected creatives, artist and curator Jade Townsend and arts writer and curator Francis McWhannell.  Located in Commercial Bay on Lower Albert Street, the co-directors have been plotting a collaboration since meeting back in 2020. McWhannell told The Lowdown they “clicked” quickly.

“We have wanted to work together in some way for a while now. Season began to take shape during the recent Level 4 Lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau. Like many, we missed in-person art experiences, and we began to dream about the experiences we could develop in partnership.”

When asked about the reason for Season - the pair replied “there is always space for fresh approaches to platforming high-quality works of art. In developing Season, we have found ourselves focussing less on what is lacking and more on the abundance present within the art community—an abundance that we are privileged to play a role in supporting with this new project.

“An important basis for Season is the bringing together of different entities—beginning with us two! We aim to create exhibitions that will enfold a wide range of different works, voices, stories, and perspectives.”

Jade Townsend, Forecast/Four Caste (2022), part of Season's debut show, Hono.

They say there’s “an exciting series of shows” lined up, but are keeping the details tantalisingly close to their chests for now. “Our minds and hearts are in the present moment as we install the inaugural show, Hono. This comprises works by Jade and internationally renowned adornment artist Neke Moa. We look forward to welcoming visitors to the physical gallery space and helping them to forge connections with artists and works from Aotearoa and abroad. Such connections have never been more important.”

Of course, with these times, anyone setting up a commercial gallery needs to be nimble. Season has opened up a digital offering through its website and shows will be visible from the huge windows facing the street when the gallery isn’t open.

“This will provide a sense of the atmospheres and textures of the shows. As the name Season suggests, we are aware that the world is full of flux, and we are prepared to respond to shifting conditions of all sorts.”

Pacific Sisters hit Hawai'i

While there’s great things happening locally, Aotearoa artists are causing ripples all the way across the Pacific Ocean.

Artist collective The Pacific Sisters have been putting together powerful fashion activism works since the 1990s and are no strangers to be recognised and appreciated internationally.

Their latest achievement is being one of 43 individual and collective artists shown at the Hawai’i Triennial - HT22 - joining names like Ai Weiwei and Lawrence Seward on display at the 11 week event.

HT22 sees the Pacific Sisters put forward eight full-body portraits, produced in collaboration with photographer Pati Tyrell. Each image, presented as a lightbox and activated through augmented reality, depicts a different aitu, or avatar. 

Images from Pacific Sisters exhibit at Hawai'i Triennial. Photo: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

The Triennial describes the work - “standing in a semicircle, their aitu addresses the foundational question, ‘Who are you?’ Within the darkness of Castle Building at Bishop Museum, representations of their individual and collective powers, narratives, sounds, and appearances glow bright. Future ancestors shine in the present—may the rebellious and playful spirits of the Pacific Sisters continue to invoke and inspire many.”

Pacific Sisters member Rosanna Raymond told The Lowdown they’re “thrilled to be included in the Hawai’i Triennial. It gave us an opportunity to create new works and work with Pati Tyrell who captured our Niu Aitu through the lens. 

“Sister Suzanne Tamaki has been exploring AR for a while and led us on a new adventure to  create another layer to help ‘acti.VĀ.te’ our Niu Aitu, as we wouldn’t be able to be physically present. 

“Working through a Lockdown was a challenge - we had to change our plans three times - so we weren’t quite COVID-proof but thanks to everyone being flexible and nimble enough to chop and change, we managed to deliver. 

Images from Pacific Sisters exhibit at Hawai'i Triennial. Photo: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

“We are still tweaking the AR as our deadlines were pushed to the limits as were iSPARX working with 8 Pacific Sisters…hehehehehehe..Thanks to Pākē Salmon, we had a sister on the ground sharing a livestream on Youtube from the opening at the Bishop Museum …this was precious as we got to hear feedback from the locals.

“‘Powerful’ was the word of the night to describe the works and that was without the AR.

“A handful of Sisters are hoping to get there for the closing (in May), as while the digital realm has helped us engage with peoples in a new way (for us),  there’s still an urge to connect live and direct.”

Tonga not forgotten

Telly Tuita, Expulsion from Paradise, (2019).

Speaking of the Pacific connection - the aroha keeps coming from Aotearoa-based artists to those impacted by the Tongan Tsunami.

Following on from several successful auctions, the good folk at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust has rallied together with Tongan creatives for the Tautai Tonga Relief Fundraiser.

Starting on Monday 28 February through until 20 March, Special-edition poster prints will be available through Tautai’s website for $50 + GST - this being a limited time sale window. All proceeds will go to Red Cross Tonga.   

The new and existing original work on offer comes from: Tai Nimo; Tui Emma Gillies and Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows; Sione Faletau; Kalisolaite ‘Uhila; Serval Fandango; Uhila Nai; Telly Tuita; Meleseini Faleafa; The Doctor; Jalaina Hitchen; Melissa Gilbert; 'Ahota'e'iloa Toetu'u; Hulita Koloi; and Kasi Valu with Toi Whakaari Students.  

Purple pride

Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art. Photo: Supplied.

The Design Institute of New Zealand’s annual Best Awards are a mixture of commercial success, public service announcement acknowledgement and a hat tip to artistry - as highlighted in the latest batch of winners.

Well, winning is all about perspective - the awards dish out a virtual kaleidoscope of coloured pins to celebrate those whose creativity has garnered the judges attention.

The 2021 results are through this week - with the purple pin for Best of the Best - closely followed by the Gold, Silver and Bronze pins. Sure, plenty get acknowledged (and slightly confusing with gold not being the top gong) but The Lowdown isn’t going to complain about more creatives feeling awards love.

Among the purple pin posse is the groundbreaking Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art exhibition that was nothing short of a game-changer at Auckland Art Gallery. While the incurably talented curator NIgel Borrell is often the name most celebrated, 30 other team members are also recognised in the Graphic section. Judges declared this exhibition sets a new benchmark and is “an example of art and design that sits in great harmony.”

Artist and design collective Te Kāhui Toi also collected Purple in the Toitanga category for their role in designing Massey University’s new Te Rau Karamu Marae - described by the judges as “A truly breathtaking take on what a marae can be. Flawlessly crafted with stunning detail and imagination.”

Auckland Museum also had a strong night - with the redevelopment of its South atrium, Te Ao Mārama honoured in the Public & Institutional Spaces category and Te Tatau Kaitiaki recognised for both Exhibition & Temporary Structures and Environment graphics.

You can check out all the pin winners in the wide array of categories here.

Market value

There hasn’t been many ‘good weeks’ to be part of the performing arts sector in the past seven months (particularly those in Tāmaki Makaurau).

Next week is a welcome change.

The return of the digital version of the PANNZ Arts Market from Monday 28 February to Thursday March 3 is not just about showcases and pitches - it’s a chance to feel part of a community again and listen to some of the industry’s brightest sparks talk about where things are at - and where they need to go.

The Market is available free of charge to producers and independent artists - and everything is available both live and ‘on-demand’ for those who are registered, so you can fit it in around your schedule.

Given last year’s digital debut of the Arts Market was the most attended in PANNZ’s history, it’s sure to be another popular event.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

24 Feb 2022

The Big Idea Editor