It may not be the first place that springs to mind when you're after an art fix, but Waikato is home to two exhibition spaces that will have culture seekers revelling, writes Libby Nicholson-Moon.

Allow a few hours to saunter through the Sculpture Park and Arboretum at Waitakaruru - one of the Waikato's treasures. A little over two hours' drive from central Auckland, the park is about 16km from central Hamilton. Park owners and philanthropists John and Dorothy Wakeling purchased the 17.5 ha derelict quarry in 1991. Their project to rehabilitate the quarry and industrial wasteland has spanned two decades, with them drawing on career experience (Dorothy as an independent commissioner in environmental planning and John as a consultant arborist).

The couple's design for the property has integrated natural landforms using existing roading. They have planted more than 18,000 trees and shrubs, and created ponds, small waterfalls, intimate tree-enclosed spaces, a fernery and rock garden. There are native bush gullies and several areas devoted to indigenous tree and plant varieties. A 2km trail meanders through the sculpture park and arboretum, allowing views of the Waikato countryside.

In 2007, the Waikato Sculpture Trust was set up to raise the profile of contemporary sculpture by allowing New Zealand artists to display their work at the park.

Since it opened to the public in 2004, the park has hosted more than 20 sculpture exhibitions. Painter Sarah Anderson curated the latest exhibition, E-Scape 2011, which continues until June 6 and features 44 sculptures by 34 New Zealand artists.

The day I visited, the exhibitions curator accompanied me for a two-hour saunter admiring the trees and stunning sculptures against the background singing of native birds. Anderson's informative commentary on the sculptures and the history of the park was invaluable. I suggest that if you visit in the weekend, you take up the offer of voluntary guides available for individuals and groups.

As my walk came to an end, the "piece de resistance" for me was discovering the natural amphitheatre created by quarry cliffs, and a setting for weddings and musical performances. The grandeur of this project, the integration of nature's sculptural landforms and the clever landscaping are a must-see. Like me, I'm sure you will wonder why it took you so long to discover it.

My next destination was the Wallace Gallery Morrinsville, about 15-20 minutes by car from The Sculpture Park and Waitakaruru Arboretum. The gallery opened in October 2010 to create a reason for people to choose Morrinsville as a destination.

The gallery is in the heart of Morrinsville in the old Post Office building, once the headquarters of designer Annah Stretton. The building was renovated to national gallery standard, and has hosted more than 10,000 visitors.

There are three large exhibition spaces; the largest of these has works from The Wallace Arts Trust, with each exhibition changing bi-monthly. New Zealand arts patron James Wallace was committed to the project from its inception, securing naming rights for the gallery and pledging to loan work on a permanent basis from The Wallace Arts Trust's extensive collection.

The second exhibition space is set aside for work by residents of Matamata-Piako District, with displays changing every two weeks. This allows amateur artists, including schools and college groups, to exhibit in a professional venue for no charge.

The third space, in the main gallery, shows the work of New Zealand artists, with exhibits changing monthly, again creating a high turnover of work. Gallery director Charlotte Giblin says the opportunity to exhibit alongside prominent and award-winning artists has proved a significant drawcard and gallery spaces are booked until 2012.

The gallery interior features re-worked old-style metal water heaters as benches and doors, and a grand reception desk made from an old timber post office counter, decorated by Te Aroha sculptor Adrian Worsley with intricate scrap metal collage depicting artistic disciplines and local historical features.

A gallery shop sells work by local artists.

The gallery hosts creative events, the next event being the Morrinsville Arts Festival in August.

Evening entertainment will include music, theatre, dance, and an art trail through the town. So if you think a visit to Morrinsville is off the beaten track, you're right - but it is an enjoyable diversion.

Essential info
Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park
207 Scotsman Valley Rd, Tauwhare. Owners John & Dorothy Wakeling, ph (07) 824 0733; email info@sculpturepark.co.nz. Open daily, 10am until dusk, entry $10 per person.

Leaping Frog Cafe (on site)
Open weekends 10am-4pm

Exhibitions:
E-Scape - March 20 to June 6 Winter Exhibition - June 6 to Sept 30

Wallace Gallery Morrinsville
167 Thames St. Open Tues-Sun 10am-4pm

Morrinsville Inaugural Arts Festival 2011
- August 8 to 14

Caffeine Cafe
49 Lorne St, Morrinsville. Ph (07) 889 6410. Hours Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 9.30am-12pm.