Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Save memorial from arty meddlers

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Central city business lobbyists have joined Auckland Art Gallery bosses to try to evict war hero Lord Freyberg from the square named after him. "He's an urban design nightmare. Who needs a statue of a scary old man in a flasher's mac, lurking in a flower bed next to where office girls lunch," said a confidential report to yesterday's meeting of the CBD board.

The plan is to retire him to a spot under the motorway flyover in Victoria Park. Either there, or down with the Moses statue and the glue-sniffers in Myers Park.

Woops, sorry, I turned two pages at once, that's next year's plan. This week's plot involves a revived attempt to cleanse the city centre of the colourful suffrage centenary memorial in nearby Khartoum Place. Seemingly oblivious to the bloodied noses they suffered back in late 2005 when they first took on the ladies, the city shopkeepers are girding their loins for round two.

Relax, relax. The Freyberg story is make believe. As far as I know, there are no plans to topple the 30-year-old statue and the reason is obvious. No one would dare. Pulling down this memorial to our soldier hero for no good reason would be seen as a mark of disrespect to him and to all the Diggers who served under him. And that's the point. If the Freyberg memory is sacred, why do the gallery supporters feel they can be so free and easy with the a similar tribute to the pioneering feminists who led the world in the struggle for equal rights for women?

The friends of the gallery want to hijack Khartoum Place, the square running from Lorne St through to the Kitchener St frontage of the gallery, so it can be transformed into a grand "processional" stairway up to the newly-expanded institution. They see the wide stairway as a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up pedestrians as they wander along Lorne St and dumping them into the new palace of fine arts.

Blocking this dream are the 2000 tiles and accompanying water features of the suffrage memorial, unveiled in 1993 by Irish President Mary Robinson and then Governor-General and former Auckland mayor, Dame Catherine Tizard. Just 12 years later, the gallery activists started lobbying for its removal. City councillor Richard Simpson called it "the largest public urinal in this city" and local art dealer Gary Langsford claimed the tiles had no aesthetic merit and belonged "in a 1970s craft shop".

A public outcry won the day, ensuring the memorial and its adjacent square not just survived, but got a $2.2 million makeover.

But like rust, the opponents didn't sleep. This time round they're trying to bite their tongue as to the artistic merits. Instead, they're claiming it's an urban design issue. Supporting them is the council's advisory panel for public art, whose members just happen to include art gallery director Chris Saines. The panel's report, written by chairwoman Trish Clark, argues that "whether the mural needs to be re-sited is a decision based not on the mural but on correct urban planning requirements for the Cultural Precinct of Auckland". Demanding it should go, she says with obvious admiration, "it behoves us to remember Baron Haussmann flattened seven hills and demolished a swathe of old Paris to lay out the axes, roads, boulevards and parks that are so admired today".

One trembles at the thought of what Ms Clark might have in store for our volcanoes, or even the rest of Albert Park, if, God forbid, they one day fall foul of her "correct urban planning requirements".

I disagree with her completely. This is about the mural, totally. Commissioned by Auckland City Council and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the artists were tile maker Jan Morrison and painter Claudia Pond Eyley. The tiles, featuring Auckland suffragettes, celebrate the struggle for the emancipation of women. The high priests of the art world and their hangers-on can get all sniffy about artistic merit, but whether it's great art, is not the issue. No one judges the Freyberg statue or the John Logan Campbell fountain on those terms. As for following correct urban planning requirements, surely there's provision somewhere for memorials marking special aspects of our history.

No alternative site is identified but the one I've heard mentioned was discredited four years ago: alongside the White House brothel in Myers Park. Need I say more?

- NZ Herald

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