"The straight line leads to the downfall of humanity."
- Friedensreich Hundertwasser, December 1953
If there is one thing you need to understand about Austrian artist and "architecture doctor" Friedensreich Hundertwasser, it is his hatred of the straight line.
Straight lines, Hundertwasser wrote, were atheistic and immoral while the "non-regulated irregularities" of an uneven floor could be a "melody for the feet".
The New Zealand public will be able to enjoy that melody themselves after, a certain virus allowing, the $33 million Hundertwasser Art Centre with the Wairau Māori Art Gallery opens in Whāngārei's scenic and historic town basin on December 15.
For the legion of dogged Hundertwasser Art Centre supporters and volunteers, the battles fought, the crises faced and overcome, the millions of dollars raised and the sheer hard work put in since Hundertwasser sketched a concept for the gallery in 1993 will only serve to make that opening sweeter.
For them, the journey to December 15, has been far from straight.
Nor has it been for the Hundertwasser Centre's chief executive, Kathleen Drumm, whose 25-year career in the arts so far has traversed the local and Australian film industry before being appointed industry director for one of the world's greatest film festivals, Toronto.
After five fast-moving and dynamic years there, Drumm and her husband found themselves on the cusp of gaining Canadian permanent residency.
Decision time had come, prompting deep, soul-searching conversations about identity, "home" and what it means to be a New Zealander.
But how could she bring all that valuable international experience and her skills in talent development home in a meaningful way? What could the next challenge be?
"When I heard about this project, I was just so excited about the potential, the challenge and the opportunity it presented," she said.
"It felt like a perfect transition for me, with everything I've learnt, and to give something back."
Whangārei was familiar territory for Drumm. Born in Auckland, she moved north as a teenager and went to school at Tikipunga High School.
Part of the Hundertwasser Centre's allure was that it was a project that had galvanised many in the community in support, raising millions of dollars and culminating in what was essentially a local referendum over $3 million in council funding to bring it to fruition.
The centre, she said, was a unique architectural force that could have a huge impact on the region: socially, economically and culturally.
Whāngārei certainly feels like it is on the cusp of change and Drumm expects the new galleries will only add to that momentum.
"I think it is going to be an economic driver," she said. "It will build pride. It has the potential to change Whangārei from being more of a service town, if you like, to a destination."
It is also a project that, in no small part thanks to Hundertwasser himself, spoke to Drumm's values.
"We talk about it being an arts centre, but it is equally about nature," she said.
A walkway on the gallery's rooftop is forested with native trees, all donated. Among them is the very rare Pennantia baylisiana, better known as the Three Kings kaikōmako after the isolated island group off Cape Reinga, on which it was discovered.
"It's about that sort of profound relationship people have with art in nature that is so interesting, particularly where the biggest issue in the world is climate change and understanding and having a better relationship with nature," Drumm said.
Or, to put it in Hundertwasser-speak: "You are a guest of nature: behave!"
As CEO, Drumm is central to the success of the new centre as it moves out of construction into operation.
She sees herself as a "creative businessperson" and she will need to be to succeed in an unprecedented and challenging environment.
"We are going to build a national asset for New Zealand in readiness for when international borders open as well as a whole new experience for New Zealanders," she said.
That is where her global experience kicks in.
In Toronto, Drumm saw how a film festival could be much more, with high-class facilities, a year-round programme, hospitality and lots of other activity.
"I was a creative programmer, in terms of talent development, doing business stuff but I was also a revenue generator," Drumm said.
As part of a small group of six or seven people in a staff of more than 300, she found herself responsible for driving the financial health of a festival that was at its core a charitable organisation facing many challenges.
It was nothing for the finance director to come in and tell her she needed to earn another million dollars within two months.
She also discovered something about the New Zealand character.
Canadians, like Kiwis, were polite, welcoming and hard-working. But to them, the three Kiwis on staff appeared somewhat direct.
"You're so blunt," Drumm was told.
"No," she responded. "We're just trying to get stuff done."
As a marketer at Screen Australia before that, her job was to drive excitement about and audiences for Australian cinema, where it had been in the doldrums, both domestically and internationally.
"We really did make an impact. Obviously fuelled by talented film-makers and great storytelling," she said.
She brought a piece of New Zealand with her there, too: the understanding that success was not about the number of films made, but the quality of the story and how it could be made to resonate.
"Answering those questions first was a game-changer," she said.
Over the years Drumm has brought her talents to the table to help ink deals and find markets and audiences for films such as Taika Waititi's Boy, Australian horror The Babadook and the massive hit Lion, among others.
"I guess what I'm really motivated by is connecting artists with an audience," Drumm said. "That's probably what's driven me throughout my career, in whatever place I've been working."
Everything is about talent.
"Talent is vulnerable. I want to support talent to be successful."
Writers, directors and artists, she said, were where the emotional heart of the arts lay.
While the new centre, which will permanently house 60 of Hundertwasser's works on loan from Austria, is the obvious star and embodiment of the project, Drumm's vision is bigger and broader.
In his 25-year acquaintance with New Zealand, Hundertwasser developed a close relationship with Māori and high regard for their art forms, the most famous product of which was his green koru New Zealand flag design.
Within the Hundertwasser Centre, the dedicated Wairau Māori Art Gallery has been part of the plan from the start, operating on the principle, or kaupapa, of "by Māori for Māori art".
Almost unbelievably, it is also the first of its kind.
"When I first read about the job, I thought, 'That can't be right,' but it is right," Drumm said.
Led by an independent and high calibre board, the Wairau Māori Art Gallery is expected to deliver dynamism, challenge and change.
Somewhat in the shade, for now at least, is the existing Whangārei Art Museum, Northland's public art gallery. Drumm hints it too can now expect some love and investment.
The combined power of these three independent and distinct entities and the other galleries along the Hātea River foreshore, present an even greater possibility, now being referred to as the Hātea Art Precinct.
"I saw this as the opportunity to create an art precinct to give Whangārei a new positioning and to do something bigger, a sense of something greater," Drumm explained.
"It's about those three entities rather than the geographical locations, the sense of a new energy and Whangārei being known as a place for artists and artisans."
Whangārei's town basin and the river itself is a storied place, much fought over in pre-European times. In the late 18th century, battles raged for control of what may have been the largest fortified pā in the country, on Mount Parihaka, which looms over the town.
A few hundred metres upriver from the Hundertwasser Centre, stone horticultural walls and mounds marking hundreds of years of cultivation nestle in bush just upstream from the oldest European structure in the city, a humble stone jetty called Mair's Landing, built around 1840.
Drumm described recent council-led development of a looped walking track around the basin and up the river along with investment in public art as "visionary".
"It has had a big impact on how people use the city," she said.
It is as if Whangārei, a very practical and rather self-effacing town, is discovering itself.
Quality restaurants and cafes in the basin are not just open for business, but often full, in some part thanks to the legion of international yachties who were effectively imprisoned there during the pandemic.
The Hundertwasser build is already acting as a catalyst for urban development, Drumm said, most visibly in the form of a public park and waterfront development adjacent to the centre.
"I believe the park has come about because of the Hundertwasser Art Centre," she said. "In fact, when we open the building that will be the opening of the park on the same day."
Across the river, an ambitious hotel and restaurant development called Oruku Landing is planned that will only add to the momentum and the possibilities.
"My understanding is that the confidence to go ahead with that was fuelled by how excited people are about the Hundertwasser," Drumm said.
She has also enjoyed a lot of help and support in bringing the project home at last, in the form of "practical wisdom" as well as donations and moral support.
Then there was the sheer hard graft of volunteers who contributed their labour to clean and prepare masses of bricks and timber, much of it from the old harbour board building that once occupied the gallery's new site, for reuse.
As for the Hundertwasser Centre's sometimes vocal opponents, Drumm said that part of the project's history was important, but it was time to move forward.
"The building is there. We have to recognise the past and people's feelings, but it is happening, it is there."
There was a strange conceit around town for a few months that the new gallery was being kept secret behind screened fences before its big unveiling. Rather obviously, it was much too big and too bold to hide.
But it also wasn't quite complete.
It wasn't until the golden cupola that now adorns the Hundertwasser Art Centre's summit arrived, as if in slow motion, by barge up the Hātea River one atmospheric dawn in June, that the building presented its full, true self.
Drumm made sure that everyone who had donated to the project over the years, not just the city's worthies, was invited to the crowning.
It was, to put it mildly, emotional. Many among the 1500-plus crowd fought to hold back tears as the dome was lifted high in the air, catching the morning sun.
And while one of Drumm's strong suits is in marketing, she insists the spectacle was not a PR stunt.
"It had to come up the river very early because we had to avoid the traffic and there had to be certain weather and certain tides, so the whole thing was very carefully calculated," she said.
On that cold, clear winter's morning, though, Drumm captured the essence of the cupola's slow, meandering trip up-river, out of the darkness and into the light, as a "visual, potent symbol of an incredible journey".