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The House That Cath Built

The Lowdown speaks to some of the biggest names in NZ's creative community for a behind-the-scenes look at the late Dame Cath Tizard's enduring arts legacy - and some big cultural announcements.


The art world is full of trailblazers - people prepared to cut against the grain, to challenge the norm and leave a lasting mark.

And here in Aotearoa, one of those special defiers of convention has been mourned this week.

You wouldn’t often consider a mayor and a Governor-General to be a disruptor but that’s exactly what Dame Cath Tizard was. 

She’s being honoured for her groundbreaking political and public service career as Auckland’s first female mayor and our first female Governor-General - and rightfully so. It came at a time when anything other than a male Mayor was considered “completely unacceptable” in some quarters. History shows which side of the fence they fell on.

Her impact on our creative community is also of huge significance. Dame Cath didn’t just support the arts and cultural sector, she rolled up her sleeves and went in to bat for artists and performers and made a difference. 

Renowned arts leader Sandi Morrison worked for Auckland City Council during Dame Cath’s mayoralty. She tells The Lowdown Dame Cath “was a marvellous Mayor who was dedicated & passionate about opening doors and crossing boundaries for the arts in Tāmaki Makaurau. There are a lot of mayors who do not prioritise, support and nurture the arts – but Cath certainly did.  

“She made a significant difference, demonstrating how effective Local Government can be in support of new initiatives in the arts both at a professional & community level. During her time as Mayor, individual artists, cultural organisations, new public performances, community events & public art flourished. They were golden years.” 

Her biggest contribution to the arts world is unquestionably the establishment of the Aotea Centre. It was a much-discussed topic for decades but it was Dame Cath that pulled the trigger and made it happen during her time as Mayor of The City of Sails (a phrase she coined).

It was also the start of a lasting friendship with one of this country’s finest ever performers, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa back in 1983.  The operatic icon told The Lowdown Dame Cath was “THE driving force behind the enormous task of designing and building the Aotea Centre and raising local support for the project. 

“It was Cath’s idea to invite me back to help raise initial funds. I’d taken an active interest in the project as it progressed from concept to designer drawings. I was therefore very pleased to be invited and I returned to perform in two special concerts with the APO which raised nearly $500,000 towards the launch of the fund-raising campaign. We really clicked at that early stage and stayed close friends ever since.”

Dame Kiri has the distinction of singing in the first concert presented at the new centre upon its opening in 1990, as well as a leading role in the first two operas it hosted - La Boheme and Don Giovanni. Her role has been further honoured with that same stage now known as the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre.

She continues “Cath was a good team person but for the Aotea Centre project, she had a focused, hands-on approach to every aspect. She had the vision and was determined to bring the various parties together to ensure its ultimate success. It is said that we are put in this world to love, live, learn and leave a legacy – the Aotea Centre is certainly one of Cath’s biggest legacies.”

It wasn’t without its share of problems and controversies. There was plenty of criticism of Dame Cath’s approach which included escalating costs, delays in construction and a change of contractor that saw Dame Cath personally sued for millions in a saga that dragged on well past the centre’s opening before coming to a confidential conclusion several years down the track.

Despite the opposition and the legal drama, the Aotea Centre and the surrounding arts district of theatres and performance venues has been a hub for creativity - and creative livelihoods - for decades.

Sir Bob Harvey was Dame Cath’s campaign manager during her terms as Mayor and explains to The Lowdown “while she was building the Aotea Centre, she told me that she was crazy about the theatre being more than just a theatre - but also a cultural arts centre.

“She personally went out meeting artists, talking about work and the person she trusted enormously was Hamish Keith. Between them, they had a great influence on the art of the Aotea Centre, which is an underestimated home or some very fine, contemporary art.”

That now includes a portrait of Dame Cath herself, painted by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists, Dick Frizzell - not the name you’d expect to see attached to such a work.

Portrait of Dame Cath Tizard by Dick Frizzell (1991).

The pop art flagbearer and landscape artist agrees - “why was a ‘modern artist’ like me even doing it!” 

Frizzell tells the story of how it happened to The Big Idea. 

“Hamish Keith organised it and I went over to Tom Finlayson's Remuera apartment and photographed the set-up with the flowers. I decided on the red jacket.

“I did it all from photographs…no way was I going to have her sitting there the whole time! She joshed and chatted a bit as we set up the shot but she took it all very seriously.

“Painting it was pretty straight forward despite it all feeling a bit odd…a bit ‘blue stocking’. Not my usual fare. I treated it like a landscape…and you can see it in the folds of the jacket.

“Hamish kept an eye on progress…at one point telling me the treatment on the hands was a bit loose…a bit ‘transparent’.  So I dutifully tightened them up. The first drawing of the head was too big! kept me awake all night.

“The family - apparently - weren’t altogether happy with it, thought I’d made her look a bit grim. And maybe I did suppress the ‘larrikin’ a bit too much. But, hey, that’s the pose she struck for me…and there was no going back!

“Funny how it turned out so darn formal!!  We should’ve all gone over to the Opito bach!”

Frizzell, a great raconteur, also tells the story from his journals of how Finlayson had a crew film the event for posterity.

“Apparently- and I love reading these old diaries - at one point I startled the Dame by removing the remote mike apparatus from the small of my back…she thought I was ‘pulling a truss out of my trousers’!”

While occasionally the subject of art, Dame Cath was in her element when it came to giving back to it. The number of boards and trusts that she sat on within the arts is simply incredible.

Dame Kiri explains “Cath was patron of many arts-related charitable organisations. She didn’t subscribe to the idea of lending your name and then doing nothing. She was actively involved and took a genuine personal interest in these groups and, if invited, was glad to attend special occasions if her presence helped raise the profile or funds.” 

Sir Bob says “we first met when we were on the board of the Mercury Theatre (in the early 80s) and I realised this was an extraordinary woman that loved the arts - loved theatre very much so. Before Aotea, there was really one theatre in Auckland and that was the Mercury. I was the Deputy Chair and we asked if she would come on the board and help work through the difficulties often with directors and plays. She had a terrific knowledge of theatre in New Zealand.”

She was a friend and supporter of many theatre companies over the years, including as a donor and a regular, enthusiastic attendee of Auckland Theatre Company who was very supportive of the move to establish a regionwide framework for funding Auckland amenities.

Dame Cath backed the city’s cultural institutions too - She was an admired figure in Auckland Museum - as a founding member of the Museum Circle and officially opening many exhibitions.

Dame Cath sharing a laugh with Auckland Museum Staff in 1995. Photo: Auckland Museum archives.

​​Vincent Lipanovich, director of New Zealand Maritime Museum told The Lowdown “Dame Cath was a truly ground-breaking leader in both Auckland and New Zealand and a true friend to arts and culture. 

“As a key supporter of the then Auckland Maritime Museum Trust she was a major player in the foundation of the museum in 1993, and continued this support as Governor-General when she agreed to become our first Vice-Regal patron when the museum received its national designation.  

“We will always be grateful for her significant role in ensuring that Aotearoa New Zealand would have a place to preserve, share and explore our stories of the sea. We are a volunteer founded institution and Dame Cath’s many years of service to heritage in this country will always remain an example of the amazing difference that the passionate dedication of individuals can make to making our history more accessible to all.”

Umpteen other organisations speak of Dame Cath in glowing terms - with her love of opera to the fore.

Donald Trott and Dame Cath. Photo: Supplied.

Donald Trott, Executive Chairman of New Zealand Opera School Trust and Trustee of the NZ Opera Foundation Trust told The Lowdown “Dame Cath was a Founding Patron of the New Zealand Opera School and attended here in Whanganui a number of times. She was also a lifetime Patron of New Zealand Opera (NZO), and charmingly, always called it Opera New Zealand.

“Cath loved the opera and seldom - if ever - missed a performance, if not on opening night then at a later date. A charismatic, no-nonsense and fun person to be with, Cath will be greatly missed.  

“One of my enduring memories of Dame Cath is partnering her in a Scottish dance at a highland gathering arranged by the Auckland and District Pipe Band of which she was Patron. She was a lovely dancer.”

Dame Cath getting the birthday treatment at New Zealand Opera office. Photo: Supplied.

Long-standing NZO board member Suzanne Snively explained to The Lowdown “Dame Cath had an energy force that could be felt even by those outside the room.  She loved opera and took every opportunity to see performances.  She was both a Patron (in the official sense) and patron (in attendance), backing New Zealander opera performers and their supporters in their quests to realise the potential of the talent pool we have here. 

“When the decision was taken that Dame Cath would be the first woman Governor-General in New Zealand, the good news spread with increasing momentum by word of mouth.  In 1989, before the days of social media, the combination of Dame Cath’s charisma and the level of excitement among New Zealand women, was every bit as powerful a way to spread the news as any modern algorithm. 

“While the impact of her physical energy will be missed, the boost that she’s given to opera leaves an immense enduring legacy.”

Dame Cath was always the life of the party. Photos: NZ Opera.


Fellow board member Joanna Heslop recalls that a friend of Dame Cath’s heard her busking classical songs and arias on Lambton Quay and decided to throw a soirée so she could meet her. 

“I rocked up with no idea who the special guest would be! After that she invited me to sing at Government House several times - it felt like a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. I even sent her an invitation to my Bachelor of Music graduation recital and - despite having a dinner for a visiting Head of State that evening - she came. Dame Cath had a way of making everyone feel at ease and valued, to the extent that even a rather timid young singer felt able to make that kind of approach.”

What a line-up - Dame Catherine Tizard, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Edmund Hilary, Lady Hilary and Dame Malvina Major at the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Gala Concert, Aotea Centre, 2004. Photo: Supplied.

When Dame Kiri set up the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation in 2004, she says “Dame Cath was one of the first people I invited to be a trustee to offer mentoring, financial support and career assistance to outstanding NZ singers. She accepted immediately and ultimately served as chair of the Foundation for over 10 years until 2018 when she was appointed Foundation Lifetime Trustee. 

“She had all the qualities - a professional approach to governance, wisdom, depth of knowledge, humour and wit – her compassion touched us all – including her passion for excellent punctuation.

“She was a highly talented and capable woman with energy to burn – a much to be admired woman – a wonderful person whom I adored. Outside of meetings we have enjoyed some great times together - Cath loved a party and was always the life and soul.”

Dame Cath certainly fit a lot into her 90 years - and for that, the creative community will be forever grateful.

Arts Council's new blood

We’re not just farewelling a great contributor to arts governance, we’re welcoming the latest ones too.

Creative New Zealand’s governing body, The Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa has this morning confirmed two new board members.

It’s not your usual job interview - you won’t see the positions listed anywhere. This is invite only.

Manatū Taonga make the recommendations, Minister for Culture and Heritage Carmel Sepuloni chooses the contenders and then it has to be approved by Cabinet.  Quite the process.

And emerging as the new members in this influential arts leadership board on three-year appointments are artist and curator Ane Tonga and experienced cross-sector governor Hilary Poole. 

Also of note, current board member Michael Prentice is elevated to Deputy Chair following Caren Rangi’s promotion to Chair - and Garth Galloway is sticking around for another term.

Sepuloni has described the new pair as “two formidable wahine who I know will make a valuable contribution to a strong, passionate and diverse board that is dedicated to serving the arts sector and the wider community.”

Rangi told The Lowdown “one of the parts of my job as Arts Council Chair has been to help in the hunt for great people to recommend to our Minister for appointment to our board. And by ‘great people’, I mean those who can bring a combo of relevant skills, experiences and perspectives that complement our current board. 

“I am thrilled that with Hilary and Ane joining us that we now have a full vaka - so it’s full steam ahead from here!”

The inaugural Curator, Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Tonga has been building up to such an appointment for some time. Her creative resume is impressive - not just as an artist where she focuses on gender and the politics of representation, exhibiting at the likes of Objectspace Auckland, City Gallery Wellington and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. 

Ane Tonga. Photo: Supplied.

Tonga’s been contributing in other governance roles in the sector, including as Deputy Chair of Contemporary HUM Trust Board and a member of the Whitecliffe Fine Arts Advisory Group.

Throw in academic roles at Unitec and Elam School of Fine Arts, it’s easy to see why Tonga’s been chosen to succeed the highly respected Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban on the Arts Council.

Tonga told The Lowdown “this appointment is important to me and signals greater continuity of Pacific women breaking down barriers like Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, Caren Rangi and Honorable Carmel Sepuloni. I am bringing my extensive and diverse experiences in the arts sector to honour and build on the work they’ve done to strengthen arts and culture for all New Zealanders.”

Poole has amassed a widely admired expertise in leadership and governance over the past 25 years. She has been one of the leading lights in Aotearoa’s sports administration - including for High Performance Sport NZ, Netball NZ and Hockey NZ. She’s still well regarded by those organisations - not something guaranteed in the sporting leadership circles.

As a current trustee of Play It Strange - supporting young New Zealanders to write, record and perform their own song - Poole is no stranger to the impact creativity has on the community.

Hilary Poole. Photo: Supplied.

She expressed to The Lowdown “it’s a real privilege to be appointed to the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa. I have a deep belief in the power and importance of the arts and culture to our country - it’s great to read that the vast majority of kiwis do too. 

“I believe arts and culture are fundamental to our diverse cultural expression, creativity, social connectivity, mental health, confidence, self-belief and wellbeing – both individually and as a nation.”

Their tenures are already underway - coming in at a time where the creative community needs strong leaders and representation as much as ever before.

Words of achievement

Winners of the 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement Anne Kennedy, Dame Claudia Orange and David Hill. Photos: Supplied.

Creative NZ’s had a busy morning - also announcing the three recipients of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement for 2021.

The annual acknowledgement of some of Aotearoa’s finest writers has once again been forced away from an in-person event thanks to a certain pandemic but it won’t blunt the honour for this year’s acclaimed trio, which comes with a $60,000 prize for each.

Anne Kennedy is the poetry recipient - an innovative poet, fiction writer, screenplay editor and teacher who’s garnered a swag of awards for both poetry collections and short stories, as well as fellowships and residencies ranging from the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington to the University of Iowa.

David Hill’s successful career writing for young adults has been recognised as the fiction recipient. 

Like Kennedy, Hill is also a teacher and his work is well-established in many school reading lists - his 1992 book  See Ya, Simon about a boy with muscular dystrophy is still used as a class text in high schools all over New Zealand.

Hill’s novels have been published internationally and translated into several languages, and his short stories and plays for young people have been broadcast here and overseas. Along the way he’s racked up numerous awards and honours, including the Margaret Mahy Medal and the New Zealand Society of Authors President of Honour.

And acknowledged for her contribution to non-fiction is Dame Claudia Orange OBE DNZM, who has the rare achievement of making both the UK and New Zealand honours lists - both for historical research.   

Dame Claudia is considered to be one of the country’s pre-eminent historians - particularly for her 1987 work The Treaty of Waitangi and this year’s The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History. As well as an award-winning writer, she’s also played a key role as a director of collections and research at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Another leading historian, Dr Monty Soutar has also been recognised with the coveted Michael King Writer’s Fellowship.

The above quartet will talk about their latest honour, their incredible careers and insights into their writing process in this year’s Live Online Literary Panel on Tuesday 16 November 6.30-8pm - hosted on The Big Idea’s Facebook and Youtube pages as well as on CNZ’s. 

There’ll be the opportunity to ask questions and get inside some of the top literary minds in the country - it’s always an intriguing night.

Finally feeding our cultural cravings

For those in Wellington, being part of such enlightening conversations is happening right now.

Verb Wellington launched its 2021 festival last night - running through until Sunday - after managing to hold on through the COVID cancellation tsunami in some much needed good news for established creative events around the motu.

Direct and founder Claire Mabey admits to The Lowdown “it's been a challenging lead up with the shifting sands of COVID 19 meaning re-framing the festival several times. 

“Last night's events felt electric, as though the impossible had been made real: many of the writers mentioned that so many of their other opportunities to celebrate and read from their work has been scuppered by the pandemic. So to be able to perform was special for them but also for the audience who hung off every word. 

“We are incredibly grateful and relieved to be going and have worked hard to ensure that the house of Verb is a safe one.” 

The event’s littered with literary wahine toa - Mabey saying the festival's theme of 'coven' is “a deliberate attempt to evoke gatherings where magic can happen; ideas of sharing knowledge, spells and information that could change the material world.” 

One of 2021’s most in-demand writers, Tayi Tibble closed the opening night of the festival by performing her poem Karakia 4 a Humble Skux, setting the tone for the next four days. Tayi said one line and the audience repeated it back to her until the end so together we shared her stunning 'prayer or a spell'. It was the perfect way to end and begin the next four days.

Tayi Tibble performing on the opening night of Verb Wellington. Photo: Claire Mabey.

It’s further proof that we’re not out of the woods yet - but the tone is beginning to change.

WORD Christchurch is only a few days away as well, running 9–13 November - an impressive recovery considering it was shut down by lockdown a week before opening its doors in August.

While downsized to 40 events over five days with smaller, socially distanced events - they're still doing all they can to keep both speakers stuck thanks to travel restrictions and audiences unable to attend connected via technology.

Just like Verb's online offering - WORD's made select events accessible either via livestream or in-venue attendance.

Auckland’s move to stage 2 of Alert Level 3 on Wednesday will see doors start to open again in public facilities like libraries and museums.  That could mean a culture hit (while masked and two metres apart, mind you) could be on the horizon at places like Auckland Museum and NZ Maritime Museum - fingers crossed.

While the likes of the APRA Silver Scroll Awards (now locked in for 3 March 2022) are taking a better safe than sorry approach, there’s a quietly growing - but not getting ahead ourselves -optimism we could start to see more feel-good stories on the horizon.

Everyone wins

Nature Wins! By Deborah Crowe.

Speaking of which - this weekend provides a much needed fresh-air culture fix for those still in lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Artweek Auckland has plenty of outdoor art experiences around the city - including the already popular Nature Wins! By Deborah Crowe, bringing more than a splash of colour and vibrancy to the steps of Freyberg Place.

Crowe’s offering more than just a visual experience - you can get a taste of it for your home too, all for a good cause.

She’s producing 100 small limited prints of the alluring artwork called Nature Wins!YAY - funding all the cost herself. It’s on archival pigment print on fine art paper. 

Half the proceeds are going to the good folk at Sunday Blessings that saves food from going to waste all over the city and uses it to feed the unhomed community who congregate around the step at Freyberg Place.

You can find the details here

Nature Wins!YAY limited edition print by Deborah Crowe.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

4 Nov 2021

The Big Idea Editor