Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Free us from danger of plonked art

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Queens Wharf state house seems like revenge of the artocracy, but secrecy means we know nothing about it.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

And the secrecy goes on ... This week, the Herald ran a leaked image of the mystery $1.5 million sculpture Mayor Len Brown has regally decided will be plonked at the end of Queens Wharf.

After 18 months of playing hide-and-seek with the rest of us, you might have thought the mayor would have conceded the game was up, and revealed all. But no.

Council officials dismissed the image as not being up to date, but refused to provide anything newer.

To me it's starting to reek of the Auckland artocracy trying to get its own back after its ignominious defeat at the battle of Khartoum Place in 2011. In that jolly skirmish, the high priests of art made a full frontal assault on the inoffensive tiled memorial erected in 1993 to mark 100 years of universal suffrage in New Zealand.

They wanted this ugly "craft work" to make way for a grand concrete stairway up to their newly restored temple, the Auckland Art Gallery. But political pressure from a gaggle of powerful Dames had the art gang in rapid retreat, noses bloodied.

This time round, they've adopted a new tactic. Stealth.

With a $1 million benefactor, Barfoot & Thompson, and prominent artist Michael Parekowhai lined up, the artocracy has sidled up to the mayor and persuaded him the only place for such a generous gift is slap bang on the end of Queens Wharf - and by the way, we'll need another $500,000 of ratepayers' cash.

The details are something of a mystery. The gift, to mark the real estate company's 90th anniversary, was announced in March last year, Mayor Brown declaring the gift "awesome".

Since then, it's been a continuing story of secrecy and lack of accountability.

Barfoot & Thompson sculpture consultant Dame Jenny Gibb predicted in yesterday's Herald that "the Parekowhai house will become a much-loved icon of Auckland" and warned darkly about the consequences of "ill-informed comment".

But what other comment is possible, when she and the mayor deliberately keep the rest of us ill-informed.

What has emerged is that the sculpture takes the shape of an old state house, fitted out with a $705,000 Venetian crystal chandelier.

Dame Jenny noted yesterday: "The iconic state house represents a distinctive part of our new world history."

Both iconic and ironic, given that just a few kilometres away in Glen Innes, the real things are being demolished.

But let's not go there. Critiquing the art is something I've carefully avoided over the past 18 months. My beef is about the autocratic way this work has somehow found itself a home on the most expensive house section in Auckland.

In June, a report to the council's arts committee claimed that "Auckland Council [had] pledged support for the project including making a commitment to the location of the art work on Queens Wharf."

At the time I challenged anyone to produce a record of any such vote. I'm still waiting.

At that meeting, the committee rolled over completely and delegated planning, design and delivery to the bureaucrats.

So much for the council's shiny new public arts policy. Under the section dealing with gifts, proposals and acquisitions, it says that "Auckland Council will work carefully to ensure all gift offers are considered in a fair, transparent and consistent manner".

Public arts bureaucrats would assess all offers and report their findings and recommendations "in the case of the intended gift being of regional significance, to the governing body for a decision".

The bureaucrats claim the June meeting of the arts committee had the delegated responsibility to make that decision.

Even if that is so, that committee had no authority to make decisions on the future use of Queens Wharf. That's Waterfront Auckland's responsibility. And as yet, we still await its masterplan for Queens Wharf and the waterfront.

In his report to the April meeting of Waterfront Auckland, chairman Bob Harvey gave a broad hint about how he thought.

He declared that "Queens Wharf has an opportunity to survive design pollution." It was to be "a public space, a place to walk and to stroll" and "no matter what kind offers are made, it should be always free of plonked art ..."

Looking back, this was obviously a cry for help from someone with a lighthouse sculpture about to be dropped upon him from a great height. It's time those wanting to preserve Queens Wharf's openness came to Sir Bob's rescue.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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