Dionne Christian goes in search of how the arts can give a small town a new lease of life.

One morning in December 2013, staff at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui arrived to find a piece of their world had collapsed.

Masonry from the ceiling of the then 94 year old building had crashed to the floor during the night, indicating that the regional gallery, with an internationally significant collection of some 8300 artworks, was about to face (more) tough times.

City leaders and art lovers had spent years discussing, debating and disputing – at times acrimoniously – extensions to the gallery. The proposal was most contentious during 2004 when, with most of the funds for a redevelopment raised, it became a lightning rod in a combative campaign for the Whanganui mayoralty.

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Read more: Whangarei's big chance: the Hundertwasser Art Centre

Once elected, Michael Laws led the charge to cancel the extension plans and, within weeks, the Sarjeant Gallery Trust Board resigned.

"It's a luxury Whanganui couldn't afford," he said at the time. "It was the dumbest solution on the block. I'm delighted it's gone."

Henry Sarjeant, the English farmer who spent most of his life farming in Whanganui and donated £30,000 to start the gallery (about $7 million today), might well have swivelled in his grave.

Water ingress was causing Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery to fall apart. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro
Water ingress was causing Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery to fall apart. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro

A Save our Gallery group formed but progress was slow; then, after a decade of discontent, the ceiling started falling in. On a building that housed an art collection now valued at $28.8 million.

Engineers were called in, reports done and the news for the Category 1-listed heritage building was dire. Water ingress meant the gallery was rotting from the inside out; it also met just 5 per cent of the new building code's earthquake strengthening requirements.

Forget about raising money for an extension; the whole place needed a major restoration and that came with a price tag of around $34 million (now $34.9 million). How could a modest-sized regional centre, with a population of around 40,500, raise that - especially given the strife of a few short years before?

Mayor Annette Main said Whanganui wasn't a wealthy community. "Unless some miracle happens here in Wanganui and we are suddenly gifted some unexpected amount of money it can't go ahead because we have promised our ratepayers we will do this only if we source the money from outside of Wanganui."

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The Sarjeant Gallery basement, now empty, where a multi-million dollar art collection was stored. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro.
The Sarjeant Gallery basement, now empty, where a multi-million dollar art collection was stored. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro.

But a miracle has happened; the money has been raised, partly because there is growing awareness of what the Sarjeant - and the arts themselves - can do for the district.

"I know art galleries might seem like the new kind of monorail when you've got Whāngārei with the Hundertwasser and New Plymouth with the Len Lye but, you know, there's a reason money is put toward these institutions," says mayor Hamish McDouall.

"The business case stacks up, they get people through the door. I go to the Far North regularly; I've probably stopped in Whāngārei for coffee a couple of times but next time, when I go through it and if the Hundertwasser is there, we'll stop and maybe we'll stay."

It's almost a silly question to ask about the merit of putting money into the Sarjeant, says Whanganui district councillor and businessman David Bennett. He sees a vibrant cultural sector as a drawcard for visitors but also skilled workers who want to move from less affordable main centres but are concerned there won't be enough to do in a regional town.

A visual from Warren and Mahoney Architects on how they envisage the redeveloped Sarjeant Gallery at Queen's Park will look.
A visual from Warren and Mahoney Architects on how they envisage the redeveloped Sarjeant Gallery at Queen's Park will look.

"And you can still buy a house – a perfectly good house – in Whanganui for $230,000 - $250,000 and that realisation is dawning on more people."

The World Travel and Tourism Council's 2017 Economic Impact study states that cultural tourism – which includes visits to art galleries – is one of the fastest growing and most valuable sectors of the multibillion dollar global travel and tourism industry. It accounted for an estimated 9.8 per cent of global GDP in 2016 and 14 million jobs.

At AUT's New Zealand Tourism Research Institute, Simon Milne, associate head of school, research and development , says globally communities are seeking points of difference to attract tourist dollars with the cultural dimension - the arts - representing an important element in that approach.

Milne believes if a community can develop something that sets it apart from neighbouring areas or allows it to become part of a network of galleries or attractions, it can add real value but, obviously, the money has to be invested before you get that return.

And that makes some people, especially ratepayers, nervous.

Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum is the exemplar par excellence of what happens when things go right. It was built, for $US89 million, as part of a regional revitalisation project in a rundown port area of the northern Spanish city.

Opened in 1997, within its first three years four million tourists had visited the museum and, by generating around €500 million, through hotel stays, restaurant meals, shopping, transport and taxes, paid for the building, an acquisitions fund and other start-up costs several times over.

It's known as "the Bilbao Effect" but the Guggenheim Museum is a different undertaking to the revamped Sarjeant Gallery given the location and population differences and the size of the institutions themselves.

Milne points to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, northwest of Toronto, as a more comparable example. It was founded in the 1960s by Robert and Signe McMichael, collectors of paintings by famed Canadian landscape painters, First Nations and Inuit artists.

"That is a nationally respected gallery with an amazing art collection and that has been a major source of economic revenue and visitation for that area, just north of Toronto," he says.

The Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth.
The Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth.

Then there's the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, two hours along the road from Whanganui. A Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL) report concluded in 2016 the LLC attracted 34,400 visitors – 17,000 from outside the region – who helped inject $7.4 million into the local economy and generate the equivalent of 103 full-time jobs.

Still, the award-winning gallery has experienced cash woes – it was forced to introduce a $15 charge for non-resident visitors – and remains contentious. New Plymouth district councillor and LLC opponent John "Horse" McLeod told Stuff he didn't think the centre was attracting visitors: "[The] majority of our tourists are here for our natural environment, not these things. Take a five minute drive and you're out of the city, at the sea."

Maybe, says Milne, but why not have additional attractions that complement the natural environment and offer something extra?

"People will also be looking at physical attractions: walking tracks, rail trails, lakes, beaches and other things that attract visitors but this is a different dimension and it may keep visitors in town if they decide to add on an extra day or two to see the gallery."

And, he adds, gallery visits aren't dependent on fine weather.

Whanganui is ideally placed to join an art trail along the Western flank of the lower North Island, Sarjeant gallery director Greg Anderson and trust chair Nicola Williams point out.

Curators Greg Anderson and Jennifer Taylor-Moore with the empty Sarjeant Gallery in 2015. After huge fundraising efforts, redevelopment work begins this year. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro.
Curators Greg Anderson and Jennifer Taylor-Moore with the empty Sarjeant Gallery in 2015. After huge fundraising efforts, redevelopment work begins this year. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro.

Start at Te Papa, head to the Dowse in Lower Hutt followed by the Pataka Art + Museum in Porirua then onto Te Manawa in Palmerston North, the Sarjeant in Whanganui and the Govett-Brewster and Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth.

UCOL art & design lecturer Cecelia Kumeroa points to the Sarjeant's annual Whanganui Art Review as an example of welcoming the community into the gallery and giving emerging artists a space to visit. Anyone living within the Whanganui River catchment area can bring an artwork in and a professional panel then selects work to be exhibited. In 2017, 130 were selected.

Whanganui kaumātua John Maihi says art is intrinsic to Māori culture. However, Maihi freely admits he's seen some art he regards as "strange" and he doesn't always understand it. He felt a little that way about Bearing, a huge stainless-steel sphere with a fissure carved into it to represent the route of the Whanganui River, made by sculptor David McCracken.

But Maihi admired the thought, creativity and work that went into Bearing and found himself on more than one occasion wandering down to Moutoa Quay to visit the sculpture, sometimes to touch it. After flooding in the area in 2017, Maihi was keen to know that "my sculpture" was okay.

"I can see and understand the symbolism," he says, adding that he favours the idea of iwi working in partnership with the Sarjeant Gallery because such spaces have to be inclusive. "It's important that the community be involved."

The silver ball, officially known as Bearing and made by David McCracken in 2011. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro
The silver ball, officially known as Bearing and made by David McCracken in 2011. Whanganui Chronicle Photo/Stuart Munro

Because, ultimately, it's all about communities, says Simon Milne.

"Galleries and museums are fantastic in helping to create a sense of place; they have people in them who reflect and think about what the environment means to them through art… in all those settings you've got the chance to talk about contested histories, to talk about Māori culture.

"What you promote to a tourist often reflects you own value and your own focus. It's about us, as a society, becoming more aware of what we can offer in terms of arts and culture. I think that's definitely happening - there's been a real trend around Auckland in the growth of things like sculpture trails - but I think we can do more. Whanganui could be on to a very good thing indeed."

Sculptor Glen Hayward grew up in neighbouring Aramoho, studied in Auckland and lived in the Hokianga before returning to Whanganui in 2015 for the Tylee Cottage Residency, an artist-in-residence programme run by the Sarjeant Gallery, the district council and Creative NZ.

"I couldn't believe it when I returned and saw so many galleries in such a small town," Hayward says. "There's a very strong art presence, a very strong maker presence here but it's important for a gallery like the Sarjeant not get isolated from that – from its – community. I think the Sarjeant manages it well because there's a strong commitment to local arts, to being part of things, like events, happening here."

An aerial show of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua in Whanganui's Pukenamu Queen's Park.
An aerial show of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua in Whanganui's Pukenamu Queen's Park.

That may well be fuelled by having a high-profile gallery, like the Sarjeant, which can build community by encouraging the growth of smaller enterprises through things like residency programmes, meet-ups for local artists and exhibitions themselves as well as show more contemporary work from NZ and around the world.

The Sarjeant's redevelopment had an estimated completion late 2021. Whanganui District Council, local iwi, corporate sponsors and large and small donors – many from or with ties to the district – are working together with nearly $17m from Government, including the Lotteries Grant Board.

Whanganui District Council contributed around $5 million while private and charitable trusts, the community itself and individual donors have fronted up with close on $9 million.

The council has underwritten the remaining $3.9 million needed so the redevelopment could start while the Sarjeant Gallery Trust puts in a final funding push.

Since 2014, the Sarjeant has occupied temporary premises where its collection can be kept safe, exhibitions held and education programmes run. When it re-opens, back at Pukenamu Queen's Park, the existing gallery will have been strengthened and restored and the new wing - with better storage, education facilities, large exhibition and retail space and room for events – opened.

Anderson and Williams have devoted countless hours to presentations and negotiations selling the idea that art creates futures – for individuals and regional centres - to people from all walks of life.

"We've talked to thousands of people to explain what we are doing and why it would involve minimal impact on ratepayers," says Anderson, who's been in Whanganui for 11 years. "Eventually, we started getting some wins from private sponsors and trusts giving money and that encouraged the government."