New Zealanders of the year: Rodney Wilson

By Geoff Cumming

In a city where culture struggles for headway against less aesthetic pursuits, Dr Rodney Wilson has worked wonders with little drum-beating and few histrionics.

As director of the Auckland Art Gallery, the National Maritime Museum and, since 1994, the Auckland War Memorial Museum, Wilson has walked the tightrope between artistic ambition and political reality to greatly enhance the city's cultural infrastructure, for much of that time getting around town on one of his shiny BMW motorcycles and wearing his trademark bow tie.

This weekend's opening of the copper dome enclosed atrium, allowing a 60 per cent increase in floor space within the museum, crowns an administrative career that began in the 1970s at the McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch.

An art school graduate influenced by several years in Europe, he breezed into Auckland in his bow tie, snappy suits and goatee in the early 1980s yet worked comfortably with conservative, mainly male, politicians and bureaucrats on the Auckland City Council. The result was a major refurbishment and expansion of the city art gallery and groundbreaking exhibitions such as Monet and Canaletto which reconnected the gallery and the wider public.

After a year in Melbourne, he returned to set up the National Maritime Museum, indulging his passion for boats and love of heritage and tradition.

Throughout, he's proved the consummate negotiator, prising money from sceptical politicians, charitable trusts and businesspeople for projects he believed in.

"He's astonishingly adept at putting up proposals," says Associate Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Judith Tizard.

"He just convinces people by his knowledge and his enthusiasm and his lobbying."

Says Wilson: "The museum is the most visited manmade tourism attraction in the country, and people have been tremendously generous, but it wasn't easy raising that money."

The atrium development completes a two-stage transformation since he arrived at a facility in dire need of upgrading and struggling to display its world-class collections. The two projects required $115 million in funding.

While major building projects will be his legacy, artistic passion has been his driver. He's allegedly a hard taskmaster but his enthusiasm and wide-ranging interests have kept staff in a notoriously sensitive field on board.

His goal at the museum was to make the most of its "extraordinary" collections innovating without reaching Te Papa's populist extremes.

Much of the first-stage project was simply to bring the ageing building up to scratch with earthquake proofing and air-conditioning.

For the next stage, he set out to convince a government which had just bankrolled a national museum in Wellington that it owed a debt to Auckland - and came away with $26 million.

He also needed Auckland's fractious local bodies to agree to ongoing funding.

Printmaker Barry Cleavin, a close friend since meeting Wilson at art school in Christchurch in the 1960s, credits him with the ability to combine "the practical and aesthetic and make a success of it".

But, he says, behind the professional persona is a generous host with a wicked sense of humour.

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