It's one of those blue sky and soft sun, lovely Northland winter days. Boats, bridges, birds, bunting - they float, fly, and also hang upside down in reflections on the Hatea River.
We dither for a moment about ''inside or outside'' which is silly because on a day like this, of course it has to be outside.
It's fitting that here, where Kathleen Drumm, the new chief executive of — here we go, it's a mouthful — the Whangārei Art Museum and Hundertwasser Art Centre (HAC) with Wairau Māori Art Gallery (WMAG), is having coffee, the long arm of a crane reaches high in the background of the quayside cafe.
There is no escaping the Hundertwasser, the Big H; in fact, Whangārei folk haven't been able to escape it for years, since long before the $29 million behemoth began physically taking shape.
It's been a contentious issue in the city — the subject of a Whangārei District Council referendum, has spurred possibly more letters to ed than any other single topic, and is costing triple what locals were first told to expect — but let's stop dredging up the past, especially the negative aspects.
The HAC with WMAG (good grief, someone please come up with a usable name!) is crawling slowly but surely out of the mud.
''It's under way, and it's going to be part of Whangārei's legacy,'' its new boss says confidently.
In size, concept and consciousness it dwarfs Whangārei's fine art museum, which has a nationally significant collection. The museum (WAM) has been without a director or dedicated manager for two years. Drumm was recruited soon after the current board was set up.
She left her job as industry director with the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), and was formally welcomed to her new role in Whangārei in June.
Most of her working life has been spent in the film industry, including marketing roles with the New Zealand Film Commission and Screen Australia before working with Tiff. There she oversaw its ''annual marketplace'', which attracts thousands of executives, media and filmmakers from the global film industry. As a programmer, she led Tiff's ongoing professional, project and artistic development for screen creators.
''We had a range of extraordinary programmes and offerings year round. All these programmes contributed to the whole. The film festival was a huge part but Tiff was more than that,'' Drumm says.
The return home
Regarding the Hundertwasser project, she diplomatically refers to having ''learned about the complexities of the conversations of the day'' since arriving.
But back in Toronto she'd realised the project's potential, its benefit to New Zealand arts in general and its positive impact on its particular location and Northland well into the future. That was the lure that brought Drumm back home to her childhood hometown after a 10-year career as a globally influential arts executive.
But the attraction was also a love for the place itself, the depth of which she is rediscovering. Since leaving when she was 17 years old, Drumm has regularly returned to visit a close friend who lives on the Tutukaka Coast. After years living in landlocked Toronto, she is ''drawn to the water'' — the sea, rivers, estuaries.
It could be in her blood, as this district is one of her Pākehā turangawaewae, a "place to stand". In 1859, her forebears left Ireland and sailed across the oceans to the new world, to Waipū where they set up a grocer shop. Her family story is full of artisan ancestors - furniture makers, linen weavers and embroiderers, for example.
During Drumm's frequent returns to New Zealand, the hushed native birdsong that greets arrivals at Auckland Airport never fails to move her. Her mother and her father, who was Tikipunga High School's inaugural principal, were keen on the arts and the environment. Her father was a bird watcher.
At the Zonta Great NZ Book Sale in Whangārei a few weeks ago, Drumm was thrilled to buy a copy of A Guide to New Zealand Birds. The book sale itself was a revelation, another unexpected taste of life in this northern city.
It's a very nice circular story. Her return home will be ''complete'' when her partner and their dog arrive from Toronto in a couple of months.
Drumm liked Toronto very much, including the freezing winters which brought with them warm fires, conviviality, a true sense of season and occasions to wear ''my -25C winter coat which even wearing that in the depth of a Toronto winter, I was still cold''.
Here, as it was there, her work will involve ''art, music, film, storytelling, understanding who we are, and an incredible sense of community''.
''I see something extraordinary about Northland, it's part of what brought me back - the history, landscape, culture, invention, reinvention.''
But Northland's unique sense of identity and community is not well understood - is in some ways undervalued - outside the region.
''A challenge is, how we can change perceptions about this place?''
The Hundertwasser will play a huge role in Whangārei's redefinition as an arts and culture centre, says Drumm - the consummate marketer, believer in the democracy of art, the backer and builder of dreams, the get-things-done inclusively person.
''At the moment it's an idea that is still being built, it has yet to be born, but what I have learned is that there are incredibly talented, committed people in this community, and I trust them.
''We're moving ahead incredibly well. This building has unique complications and we're moving through them.''
Drumm's enthusiastic about the Hundertwasser being part of a larger arts precinct, not least the nearby Hihiaua Cultural Centre where contemporary and traditional Māori art and culture will be showcased in living lessons, workshops and displays.
Contemporary Māori art is central to the Hundertwasser's kaupapa and credibility, its Wairua Māori Art Gallery playing an essential part. WMAG curators will source pieces on a rotating basis from various collections, with Te Papa possibly one of those.
''It's a way for international visitors to see modern Māori culture in a different way,'' Drumm says.
To underline demand for that, she uses a film analogy: Seven out of the top 10 New Zealand movies to do well overseas have Māori themes or makers.
''That's how we are looked at internationally, and Māori artists contribute a lot to the arts scene here and overseas.
''What an extraordinary opportunity for Whangārei to be recognised, to be defined, to represent itself.''
Drumm is aware of the "white elephant" tag many still give the project, but she rejects it. This art centre will attract hundreds of thousands a year, she insists, although she admits many thousands will just stand outside and look at the building.
She cites, as have others, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Mona - the Museum of Old and New Art - in Hobart, Tasmania.
Mona, built by and featuring many artworks of David Walsh, is the largest privately owned art museum in Australia. Built in a run-down part of Hobart, and often in its early days criticised as too weird to have wide appeal, Mona is one of Australia's most popular art attractions.
The architecturally significant Guggenheim is a museum of modern and contemporary Spanish and international art. It was designed by North American architect Frank Gehry and finished in the late 1990s, purportedly built in the small Basque city of Bilbao as a thumb-on-nose gesture to authorities who turned down the offer to have it in a higher-profile centre.
It has been hailed as a signal moment in ''architectural culture'' because it represents ''one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something''.
Hard graft ahead
Unthwarted by the patchy rather than united acceptance of the Hundertwasser, its supporters have never stopped using the Guggenheim as an example of ''build it and they will come''.
But is the word "Guggenheim" more enticing than that mouthful, the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery?
Drumm laughs. ''It's something I've thought about, but there is time ahead to address it. It's essential that a name reflects your DNA and your character, that it's part of the experience and insight people seek.''
Several times during our chat, Drumm acknowledges the excellent work and support of the dedicated project and building teams. That's the physical stuff. There's a lot of decision-making and hard graft ahead as the building takes shape and, philosophically, the shape shifts.
''I have to section off different parts of my role here,'' she says. ''There's Whangārei Art Museum, yes, with good people working there with curatorial overview and lining up great exhibitions as well as caring for the collection.''
Drumm is excited about a photo exhibition opening at WAM later this month, a stunning show called Where Children Sleep (see page 5). She believes Whangārei people should feel - or perhaps demonstrate - more pride in their art museum. Being its chief executive is certainly an aspect of her job of which she is proud.
''With the Hundertwasser, I'm looking at every single aspect: Do the room spaces work? How can I make a difference to the internal use? Do the original vision and the community's evolving expectations meet?
''Constantly on my mind is the business model. Currently that model is linked to people paying to get in. I'd like to look at whether that should apply to local people.
''[The HAC] really has been born out of community effort and involvement, and community accessibility and benefit are important to me.''
They're issues Drumm has no fear about raising as she neatly demonstrates a responsibility to the public, the trust board and the huge task of getting the Big H up and running, while directing the well-respected WAM.
At the heart of them all is the arts building and building the arts. It's a faceted view Drumm brings into sharper focus from where we sit, in the sunshine, beside the river, around the corner from WAM and just beyond the shadow of the Hundertwasser.
A Hundertwasser-styled art gallery was mooted in 1993 when Austrian artist/architect, and Northland resident, Friedrich Hundertwasser offered a design for the to-be-scrapped former Whangārei Harbour Board building. The idea didn't pass muster with the then council and was raised again in the mid-2000s. It was eventually approved after a Whangārei District Council referendum in June 2015. Construction of the building, its design based on a sketch by Hundertwasser, began in June last year and should be complete by the end of next year.