Joanne McNeill: We're just a dull backwater

By Joanne McNeill

Stan Semenoff
Stan Semenoff

When the original Hundertwasser project - a fabulous building to store and display the then-homeless, damaged Whangarei District Art Collection and touring exhibitions - was ditched around 1995, I was gutted.

Instead of celebrating intrinsic cultural wealth and fulfilling crying local educational needs with a fabulous, incidental international visitor drawcard, Whangarei District Council did its very least by opening the Whangarei Art Museum in Cafler Park.

We must be thankful for small mercies.

Time passed. Kawakawa had the wit to embrace Hundertwasser's offer to build the now-famous toilets.

Frederick died.

Seemingly, end of story ... until former-Mayor Stan Semenoff and his merry team, all wearing Hundertwasser jester hats, announced they'd been to Vienna and were relaunching the idea (with Hundertwasser Foundation approval) as the Hundertwasser Art Centre.

Hearing them mouth the marvellous benefits they had scorned years earlier, I was gobsmacked, as well as dismayed that primarily the new plan was to display Hundertwasser's work rather than to showcase local arts and culture to the world, and doubtful of the building's integrity without Frederick's legendary hands-on attention.

After plans to include a Maori contemporary gallery were announced, with credible buy-in from Maori arts practitioners and academics - and experienced Hundertwasser architectural partner Richard Smart came on board - I swallowed my considerable grudge against those who foolishly lost the opportunity the first time and got behind it.

After all, Maori are the original local artists, Hundertwasser's then-prescient environmental considerations are even more mainstream now, and the magical way his buildings alter standard spatial perceptions with colour, curves and golden turrets still applies.

So on decision day last week, hopefully picturing taking my wide-eyed toddling grandchild one lovely day to see the fairy-tale castle glittering by the water, I wore odd socks for luck. FH wore them routinely on principle but sadly the benefits of a community odd socks campaign clearly struck me too late to be of any use.

I believe some of the eight councillors who voted no did it for responsible reasons such as having understandable doubts about committing ratepayers to a branded project over which an external organisation had control.

Other possible reasons - such as personal taste, latent xenophobia and old grudges against proponents - are less honourable.

Any who relied upon the results of a patently non-indicative, landline, daytime phone poll were merely deploying a handy excuse.

Harsh words have been spoken about the decision.

Gutless seems fair enough though.

Leadership is always required to create anything wonderful. Artists must make this leap of faith every day. If they had to wait for approval, backing, votes, contracts, committees or deals before committing courageous brushes, pens, chisels, cameras, clay, voices, presses, instruments or bodies to air, grounds or sticking posts, we'd have no art.

Clearly this would be seen as no loss by some locals. While this attitude persists, Whangarei will remain a dull backwater, bypassed by tourists and investors alike.

There's talk now of a third coming of the HAC as a private business venture.

I don't have the heart for it any more and I'm sorry a good idea caused such division. Henceforth let philistines, bean counters and politicians exercise their creative imaginations.

Good luck with that.

- Northern Advocate

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