Whanganui's reputation as an arts destination is set to get a major boost when a comprehensive plan to draw more tourists to the region is fully unveiled in the next few weeks.
The Coastal Arts Trail, a new, multi-regional itinerary of art galleries, museums and open studios in Whanganui, Taranaki and Manawatū, is a collaboration between economic development agency Whanganui & Partners, Venture Taranaki and CEDA (Central Economic Development Agency).
Whanganui and Partners visitor industries strategic lead Paul Chaplow said the trail would be a "cohesive package for art lovers", and one that would encourage more people to visit local art galleries and spend longer periods in the regions.
A website, along with brochures, maps and signage, are all part of the plans.
"We [Whanganui & Partners] certainly aren't curating the art and saying 'no we don't like that, you can't be a part of this'," Chaplow said.
"Essentially, we're helping to create a collective brand for all our galleries to get behind, with signage and digital technology.
"In some ways it operates very similarly to the Artists Open Studios model, where people will send their information, photos and imagery to the website, we'll moderate and approve it, and then it'll go live."
Chaplow said the trail was for galleries rather than individual artists, but the criteria to join was fairly simple.
"The gallery has to have set opening hours, it can't be by appointment only.
"They don't have to be open seven days a week, they might only be open on the weekends from 10am till 2pm. Just as long as there is a set time when people can visit."
The venue must also have a visual art component or element, where visitors can view or purchase original New Zealand art, and museums must have a permanent exhibition of art or an art gallery.
Annual or biannual art events are eligible, as are gardens with more than five pieces of permanent art, including pieces produced by artists not domiciled at the garden.
Chaplow said all of Whanganui's public art would also be featured, and there would be no charge to join the trail in its first year of operation.
"For the first year there will essentially be no charge to join, and we're hoping to show good value for that in future years.
"After that there will be a contribution to being part of the trail to help support it.
"We talking about a figure of something like $195 per annum for our base galleries, and then a higher profile listing and a slightly higher cost for our premium galleries such as the Sarjeant, Len Lye (New Plymouth) and Te Manawa (Palmerston North).
"There's no contract to sign or anything. If you meet the criteria then you'll be on the website."
Chaplow said Horowhenua and Kāpiti Coast could be added to the trail in the future.
Cath Watson, of Gallery 85/A Gallery on Glasgow St, said the trail was something that had been in the pipeline for a while and she would be happy to be a part of it.
"Anything that helps direct people or encourage people to come to Whanganui is a good thing," Watson said.
"It's not just the galleries that would win from something like this, it's accommodation, cafes and hopefully general retailers as well.
"Even if it only happens for a year because no one wants to participate, at least someone has tried something, and if it only brings through an extra 20 or 30 people, that must be good as well."
Watson said her job was to assist artists, and advertising was a part of that.
"If the artist isn't in the position to do it, they're uncomfortable with it, or it's not appropriate, then it's really the gallerist's job to help them make sales.
"Art is very much a discretionary spend, but it's also the livelihood of the artist.
"They deserve to be able to sell their work. You don't begrudge paying a plumber, so why would you begrudge paying a 2D or a 3D artist for what they labour on?"
Jim Norris, of the Fine Arts Whanganui Collective, said he supported the concept.
"For me personally, it's nice to see anything that's positive and dragging visitors off the beaten track to Whanganui," Norris said.
"If they develop a good website and the publicity's good, then that annual fee isn't extravagant.
"It's very easy to feel a little bit on the outer when you're stuck over here on the west coast, although it shouldn't because 50 per cent of the people who come to this gallery are visitors to Whanganui.
"If they are encouraged to go south along the coast or north along the coast, that can only be a positive for the people involved."
Chaplow said from a tourism perspective, renaming State Highway 4 would also encourage those travelling by car to "take a detour" and visit Whanganui.
"It's just an idea, and obviously there would have to be significant dialogue with iwi.
"In Canada you have the Sea-to-Sky Highway that goes from Vancouver to Whistler, so I've thought about variations of that.
"One of our projects is to try and create a driving route that essentially goes Whanganui, Ohakune, Taumarunui, through the Forgotten World Highway to Taranaki.
"From there it's either the Coastal Surf Highway or State Highway 3 back down.
"The Coastal Arts Trail would kind of be a part of that."