The lights finally have gone on in the latest addition to Auckland's collection of public art.

The Lighthouse, a memorable version of a vernacular state house sited on Queens Wharf, is a gift to the city from Barfoot & Thompson, the real estate company which put a generous $1 million into the project.

Other arts patrons kicked in additional funds when underwriting support from Auckland Council ran into resistance. The city should be indebted for this philanthropy because the striking work will most certainly generate what the very best pubic art ought to do - promote curiosity, conversation and conviction.

At times in the last four years, Barfoot & Thompson would have been excused for thinking why it bothered, given the occasional antagonism the project encountered. Much of this hostility came from some councillors opposed to using Queens Wharf in this way.


The Waitemata local board was uneasy with the site and felt that it was left out of the loop in the entire decision-making process.

The company must have been relieved when 80 per cent of submissions to the consent hearing were in favour of the project. As people see the installation at first hand, it would not be a surprise to see this level of support edge higher.

This newspaper was criticised by some in the arts community for reporting on the controversy, despite its task to cover matters of public interest, especially when public funds are being spent.

Arguments have been put that no public money was involved. These are wrong. The gestation of this work has been long and difficult. Countless reports have been prepared, investigations and research was undertaken by council staff and the site itself is in public ownership.

By allowing space for the artwork, then this little piece of public property is no longer available. Furthermore, there will be ongoing costs in security for the site and possibly for the upkeep of the work, given its location beside the harbour.

It is not clear how these costs will be paid though ownership of the work rests with Auckland Council.

The focus of the newspaper's coverage was about the process in the commissioning and development of artist Michael Parekowhai's splendid work - and not on the merits or otherwise of the sculpture installed on a precious waterfront site.

A lot of the discussion surrounding the council's commitment took place behind closed doors. The Herald took the view that transparency ought to be the guiding principle, and worked hard to bring the details to its readers and into the public domain.


There is still some accounting yet to surface so this aspect of the story remains unfinished.

What is clear though is that Auckland has got a new waterfront structure that speaks to many ideas. It has not escaped those involved in opposing state house sales that the placement in a very public space of an artwork which conveys an immense social history is an uncomfortable reminder of their campaign.

But then again this is clearly not a state house, though it resembles nothing else. Outside there are shutters with patterns which suggest tukutuku panels and warning signs. Inside there is no ceiling separating the two floors.

The sole occupant is a stainless steel Captain James Cook, reflected in a constellation of neon lights, gazing at the black maire floor of his sturdy home.

The artist says The Lighthouse references a history of voyages by Maori and European navigators across water to make landfall at a safe harbour. After a difficult journey through the shoals of Auckland, the city has got an asset to treasure.