Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Worthy tribute to women's suffrage

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The Suffrage Memorial. Photo / Dianne Grant
The Suffrage Memorial. Photo / Dianne Grant

The Grand Poobahs of Auckland's art world just can't help themselves when it comes to the Khartoum Place suffrage memorial. To them it's a folk-art excrescence, polluting the front door of their newly upgraded temple of high art.

Not happy with having helped themselves to a slice of Albert Park when no one was looking, they now want the square in front, wittering on about the need to obliterate the suffrage memorial and replace it with a slab of concrete stairway, straight out of the totalitarian architectural stylebook of the 1930s.

Like a dog with a bone, art guru Hamish Keith was gnawing away at this lost cause in a spread in yesterday's Sunday Star-Times.

This time around, it's "a sordid blot on Auckland's urban landscape". If so, is a boring flight of stairs going to change that?

What I don't understand is, if a grand processional entrance way is so essential to the success of the project, why didn't someone raise the issue before planning began on the $121 million rebuild?

If they had, they might have seen that the historic building already had such a boulevard sweeping up from Queen St to its original main entrance. It's called Wellesley St.

If the success of the new gallery is to depend on aimless pedestrians casually gazing up from adjacent streets and being sucked up to the temple by powers beyond human understanding, then Wellesley St is a much superior channel. It sweeps all the way to Queen St. Khartoum Place peters out in Lorne St.

Mr Keith criticises councillors for refusing to bow to the "arty elite" - his words - asking, "Do they really think it okay to defend a memorial to women that is pissed on every evening?"

He might more reasonably ask, is it right for men - I hope I'm not being sexist in my assumption - to be pissing on a memorial to women every night and the authorities do nothing about it?

Despite the art world's diversionary tactics, the issue has never been about their concern for where drunks pee, or for fountains foaming after larrikins throw in their soap powder. Or for the suffrage memorial.

They just want a clean palette.

Mr Keith's solution is to rip out the decorative tiles and banish them to the suburbs.

"There is a blank reservoir wall in Ponsonby Rd which could provide a perfect home for the whole work." Perfect? Surely if he tried harder, there's a remote overpass embankment in Hobsonville that would be even better.

At least there's no mention of the art world's earlier "perfect" new site for the suffrage memorial. That was buried away in Myers Park next to to the White House brothel.

This time there's an attempt to sweeten the pill by suggesting Khartoum Place be renamed Suffrage Square - once the memorial is gone.

In its place will be a "major work" by a New Zealand woman sculptor "beautifully commemorating the suffrage movement".

A sculptor more acceptable to the art establishment, presumably, than the women artists involved with the existing work, Claudia Pond Eyley and Jan Morrison.

In July, when the issue was last relitigated, Auckland Council's culture, arts and events forum supported a sensible compromise which involved retaining the existing memorial while providing an additional staircase on one side through a blank wall in Upper Khartoum Place.

The forum also supported a move to preserve the memorial inperpetuity.

Perpetuity sounds like an awfully long time, certainly more than the short three months it's taken before opponents have started rattling the cage again.

Instead of thinking of ways of adding to the $121 million cost of the renovations, doesn't the art world have enough on its plate concentrating on the substantial shortfall in donations raised for the project?

These days, art appreciation is so confusing you have to be a member of the priesthood to venture an opinion, and even then you risk belonging to the wrong sect.

But the battle of Khartoum Place has never been about the merits of the memorial as art, however much the priests try to steer the debate that way.

It's simply a tribute in tiles, erected in 1993 to mark 100 years of universal suffrage in New Zealand - the first country to give women the vote.

As such it deserves better than to be shunted out of the way to make way for a flight of stairs.

- NZ Herald

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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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