Children twirling and dancing under a wash of rainbow lights have given their stamp of approval for Te Papa's spectacular new art gallery, Toi Art.

"I don't know how, but I look at my shadow and if I'm in one colour it's pink and if I'm in one colour it's blue," said awed Wellington schoolboy Tasman Eyles, 11.

He was one of the hordes of excited children dashing around the $8.4 million art gallery during a sneak preview today ahead of its official opening tonight.

Tiffany Singh in her immersive artwork, part of the Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa exhibition in Te Papa's new Toi Art gallery in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tiffany Singh in her immersive artwork, part of the Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa exhibition in Te Papa's new Toi Art gallery in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A particular hit with the children was artist Tiffany Singh's immersive art work, a large room bathed in colourful lights. Visitors could press one of the buttons outside the room and head in to watch space transform into different colours.

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"It's just so cool, when I walked in I was like 'what?'" said Tasman.

The permanent gallery has 35 per cent more space to hold art works, including a selection from a collection of stored pieces that would stretch from Wellington to Blenheim if hung on a wall.

The striking selection of paintings holds pieces that date as far back as 1777.

Curator of historical New Zealand arts, Rebecca Rice, said the exhibition of paintings was "amazing".

"It felt really great to bring out these works that are favourites with the public, but also to bring out works that haven't been seen," she said.

All the people in the portraits on the wall had some type of connection to New Zealand.

There are four major exhibitions in the art gallery at the moment.

Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists is a celebration of mana wāhine and indigenous identities and will be on show until July.

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Roasanna Raymond, left, and Lisa Reihana at their Pacific Sisters exhibition in the new Toi Art gallery at Te Papa. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Roasanna Raymond, left, and Lisa Reihana at their Pacific Sisters exhibition in the new Toi Art gallery at Te Papa. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A collection of glass cases filled with knick-knacks and objects might be perplexing to visitors, but they are pieces by jeweller Lisa Walker. The exhibition is called Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom but I can't be bothered.
Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa is a stunning series of pieces that explore colour, light, shape and pattern, including an installation of coloured ribbons with glass containers hanging from them.

The piece by Tiffany Singh, called Indra's Bow, holds 45 natural materials, including dried plums, rosebuds, spices, paua, and crystals.

The fourth major exhibition is the historical art collection, and is called Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand.

The gallery is free to enter and will be open to the public at 10am on Saturday.

It offers hands-on art activities for kids and interactive experiences.

Te Papa head of art Charlotte Davy looking over in the Turangawaewae exhibition in the new Toi Art gallery. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Te Papa head of art Charlotte Davy looking over in the Turangawaewae exhibition in the new Toi Art gallery. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Te Papa's head of art, Charlotte Davy, said the new gallery was a "game changer" for art in New Zealand.

"The vast new entrance gallery is larger than any space at Te Papa, and will enable us to showcase works that have never been seen before.

"There'll be performance, dance, fashion, film, music, large-scale and new immersive works on show, which is now made possible by the size of the new gallery spaces."

Regan Thompson-Taurima was one of the people getting an early look at the gallery.

The first piece she looked at was a giant necklace by Lisa Walker, made from old pieces of lino that had been ripped up from parts of Te Papa during renovations. The pieces of lino have been painted and written on.

"I really like art that has words on it," said Thompson-Taurima. "That reminds me that words are art as well."

Debbie Prestidge said she loved the open space and the modern art style.

"You wouldn't even know that you were in a museum," she said.

This weekend will involve a programme of free events and performances to welcome guests into the gallery.