Construction on the multimillion-dollar extension to Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery has started.
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, whose Provincial Growth Fund has contributed $12 million to the project, made the announcement yesterday.
"This morning, the mauri stone was laid by local iwi to represent the life force of the building and the important role it will have in our future," Jones said.
"With a number of local contractors employed to work on the new build, this is good news for the region as it, along with the rest of New Zealand, recovers from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic."
Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall said it was "pretty exciting" to see the project get under way.
"It's been a 20-year journey to get to this point, and it will have huge economic benefits for Whanganui right now," McDouall said.
"While tourism may be pretty confined for the next 12 to 18 months, something like this can help attract tourists on a domestic level."
About 800 people will work on the project over the course of construction, along with the refurbishment of the original building which includes seismic strengthening.
"In the long term, 135 indirect jobs are expected as a result of this investment, and the expanded gallery, already a jewel in Whanganui's crown, will become even more attractive to visitors when we are again able to travel freely around the country," Jones said.
The gallery's refurbishment follows 10 years of fundraising for the multimillion-dollar project, including hundreds of individual donations from the local community.
McDouall said the Whanganui District Council was "standing on the shoulders of the giants that started this whole process".
"I'm sure a lot of people around the country will be stoked to see this, and those who aren't with us any more will be in our thoughts."
Jones said it was essential to invest in the right projects to make sure regions are well-placed to ride the wave of economic recovery.
"It's also important we preserve this taonga on behalf of iwi and for future generations so young Kiwis stay connected to New Zealand's history."
Sarjeant Gallery project director Gaye Batty said the mauri stone burial at dawn involved two taonga.
"One was of shale rock from the Whanganui River, thought to be up to a million years old, and was buried in commemoration of lives lost in the Covid-19 pandemic," Batty said.
"Another stone from the Whanganui River was also buried to signify a reconnection with a mauri stone that has been buried under the Sarjeant Gallery since 1919 when it was constructed.
"At the end of the project, a third mauri stone will be placed above ground and this will come from the mountains, to be placed by northern awa tribes from Whanganui."
The new wing of the Serjeant Gallery will extend the exhibition space which showcases a nationally significant art collection and taonga held on behalf of iwi.