Wellington: A Heart for the Arts

20 Mar 2007 by business traveller
When Eric Vaughn Holowacz moved to Wellington four and a half years ago from the US, little did he expect he would land a post that replicated his previous job managing the arts council of Beaufort County, South Carolina. Holowacz's timing was impeccable. New Zealand was basking in the glow of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which was shot there in over 150 locations. But more importantly, Wellington City Council was eager to invest in a new arts centre. In July 2005, that dream was realised with the opening of a two-building, seven-storey facility – Toi Poneke in Maori – housing offices, studios and rehearsal rooms, all supervised by Holowacz, its arts programmes and services manager. "It was such an exciting step to be making," Holowacz said at the time. The creative nucleus, he added, reflected numerous discussions and exchanges the city council conducted with the arts community. Small, isolated and off the well-travelled routes Wellington may be, but it is far from parochial. The combination of being a capital city and home to a university (Victoria) which attracts thousands of overseas students has lent the city an appealing bohemian edginess. "Wellington is very walkable. Everyone knows everyone," the transplanted Holowacz comments. "It's easy to get connected to the street life right away." To absorb that local colour, one almost always starts in Cuba Street. Named after an early settler ship, the Cuba, this pedestrianised area at the centre of downtown Wellington is home to an eclectic collection of boutiques, restaurants, cafés and bars and art venues. Some homegrown talents now hitting the national charts, such as Fat Freddy's Drop, The Phoenix Foundation and The Black Seeds, had their careers jump-started in the neighbourhood. And Wellingtonians, a loyal lot, have snapped up these bands' CDs as fast as they can produce them. But on Cuba Street, expression isn't restricted to indoors. At any given time, buskers do their thing, and anyone who has something to say or promote can do so, tacking up posters, handing out material or staging some form of expression. All that creative energy culminates in the biennial Cuba Street Carnival (alternating with the New Zealand International Arts Festival), which was held this year on February 23-24 and featured 10 music and entertainment platforms, street performers, outdoor film showings, bazaars and the Illuminated Night Parade. When it comes to formal exhibition venues and content, Wellington is equally rich. There is the stunning Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand (tongarewa means "repository of treasures"), a national landmark which attracts large crowds for its innovative displays. The two worlds that make up New Zealand – Maori and pakeha (New Zealanders of Anglo or European extraction) – are portrayed with great sensitivity. Two exhibitions not to be missed are the Marae, a genuine Maori meeting-place reconstructed for the museum, and Golden Days, a unique junk shop portraying a century of New Zealand history on film. City Gallery Wellington, a public facility with five show sections and no permanent display, is another important stop. During our visit in January, Sam Taylor-Wood, the provocative contemporary British artist, was just concluding her three-month stint of a collection of works from the mid-1990s to the present, including David, the Beckham sleeper (a video of him in perfect repose commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery London) and Crying Men, a photographic suite of celebrities – some recognisable, some not – such as Jude Law and Daniel Craig (pre-James Bond) in various stages of emotional vulnerability. At the same time, upcoming Auckland artist Peter Madden put on Escape from Orchid City, highlighting 3D installations made up of cuttings from pages of books, magazines and encyclopedias. Now showing until the end of April is Telecom Prospect 2007: – New Art New Zealand, a survey of emerging local artists in the past three years. Galleries-cum-boutiques, the majority of them located in downtown Wellington, also abound. Listings can be accessed on knowwellington.com/know or through free brochures such as the extremely helpful Arts Map from the tourist office's i-SITE information centre. Visitors on a tight schedule in Wellington can easily nip into any of the establishments mentioned in the guides; it's choosing what to bring home that's the problem. Tamarillo, owned by the garrulous Tadashi Tamai, displays a showcase of emerging and veteran talents, and fortunately offers packing and shipping worldwide. At Kura Contemporary Ethnic Art and Ora Design Gallery, next door on Allen Street, the focus is on contemporary and traditional Maori art, and both galleries are licensed stocklist for Toi Iho, the quality assurance mark for Maori arts and crafts. Ora, furthermore, has the advantage of being owned by the Hetet family of artists, members of the Te Atiawa tribe. If time permits, it's well worth allotting a morning to tour the clan's Maori Treasures complex – a living Maori tribal settlement – in the Lower Hutt area. Specialist tour operators like Flat Earth New Zealand Experiences can get you there and back quickly and the one-hour drive, along New Zealand's dramatic coast, is refreshing to both mind and soul. Points of interest include Peter Jackson's neat-looking compound in Seatoun (after his Oscar sweep he displayed the statues on his window sill in order to share the glory with his fellow Wellingtonians) and selected open-air areas provided by the city government for artists to display their latest installations. The brainchild of master carver Rangi Hetet and his wife, weaver Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, Maori Treasures consists of an information centre, a gallery, several work studios of the Konae Aronui Wananga Art School, café and shop. We managed to catch Sonnie Davis, one of the resident carvers, as he was contemplating his next move on a mask destined to hang on a wall overseas. The centre exports numerous artworks to homes of collectors and offices of various New Zealand diplomatic missions. Sonnie, who once thought of being a "chippy" (carpenter) or a butcher, says: "When I'm working, I'm communicating with my ancestors." Sonnie's kaiwhakaako (teacher), the school's founder Rangi (his wife Erenora has since passed on), continues to conduct classes. Due to his heavy load, Hetet sends his grandchildren to Sonnie for tutoring in the basics of carving. The Maori Treasures tour is not just a passive experience. Visitors (they are called "hosted guests" in this particular village) are invited to try their hand at an activity such as weaving a native basket. What thrilled me to pieces was the rare chance to don a korowai (cloak) made completely of kiwi feathers, which is meant for special occasions. Some years ago, I saw New Zealand's famous rare flightless icon in a wildlife reserve in Christchurch but had never got this close to it. Its down felt softer than the sheerest silk. Now that New Zealand has gained new cachet with travellers – thanks to Jackson and his team's efforts to recreate Tolkien's Middle Earth and King Kong's steamy jungle lair (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is next but not, alas, The Hobbit), Wellington's vibrant art scene has the chops to impress them as well. "Having several art schools in the city ensures there is always steady stream of talent," says Tracey Monastra, City Gallery's education and public programmes manager. The Arts Centre's Eric Holowacz adds: "There is a sense that people can try anything new culturally and the community appreciates this." At the annual Fringe Festival in February, the penchant for challenging artistic boundaries played out in many of the 98 productions mounted. The use of quirky venues such as parking garages and churches was favoured, as was a car, where two artists performed for an audience of only two (the number of people that could be accommodated at one time), and a guestroom in the Museum Hotel with seating for 20. In September, the Montana World of Wearable Art – a presentation featuring the body as a canvas – has been drawing record crowds since 1997 and will do so again this year. Says Holowacz: "New Zealand is not a very large country, and many artists are trying to find the right place for themselves, where they can follow their dreams and achieve a level of stability. Through our arts centre, we aim to help new and emerging talents produce and build." He says the city council, headed by Mayor Kerry Prendergast, an art aficionado herself, is especially keen to develop arts on the small and medium level, "helping those with not a whole lot of infrastructure", providing grants of NZ$100,000 (£35,000) a year to anyone who submits a good idea. And is there another Peter Jackson out there? At the time of writing, Taika Waititi (aka Taika Cohen), whose Two Cars, One Night was nominated for the short film category in the 2005 Academy Awards, is working on his first feature, Eagle vs Shark. Watch this space, folks.

Getting there

  • Emirates offers direct daily flights to Jordan, with a choice of two flights on Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays, leaving Dubai at 0725 and 1400. On Tuesdays and Fridays the flight departs at 1400, on Wednesdays at 0810 and Sundays at 0820. A business class return fare is $1,201 (£570).
  • Jordan's national carrier, Royal Jordanian, also operates direct flights daily from Dubai. Flight departures are scheduled at 0800, with additional flights on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays leaving Dubai at 1700. A business class return ticket costs $1,016 (£480).
  • Etihad Airways offers direct flights to Jordan four times a week from Abu Dhabi. Flights on Thursdays and Saturdays depart at 0930, while on Mondays and Fridays departures are scheduled at 1335. The business class return fare is $970 (£460).
  • Qatar Airways flies daily to Amman, leaving Doha at 1250, and the business class return fare is $1,225 (£580).
  • Gulf Air operates one flight a day, which leaves Bahrain at 1155, and the return business class ticket costs $1,262 (£600). From Muscat, Gulf Air operates a service three times a week, on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays. Departures are scheduled at 1500 and a business class return fare costs $850 (£400).

Go on, browse

City Gallery Wellington Civic Square, 101 Wakefield Street tel +64 4 801 3021, city-gallery.org.nz Kura Contemporary Ethnic Art 19 Allen Street tel +64 4 802 4934, kuragallery.co.nz Maori Treasures 56-68 Guthrie Street Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt tel +64 4 939 9640 Ora Design Gallery 23 Allen Street tel +64 4 384 4157, ora.co.nz Tamarillo 102-108 Wakefield Street tel +64 4 473 6095, tamarillonz.com Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand) Cable Street tel +64 4 381 7000, tepapa.govt.nz

Fact box

Wellington i-SITE Visitor Centre Civic Square (corner of Victoria and Wakefield Streets), open Mon-Weds & Fri 0830-1700, Thurs 0930-1700, December to March open until 1730, weekends and public holidays 0930-1630, tel +64 4 802 4860, wellingtonnz.com toi poneke, wellington arts centre 61 Abel Smith Street, tel +64 4 385 1929, wellington.govt.nz Flat Earth New Zealand Experiences tel +64 4 977 5805, flatearth.co.nz

Dates for the diary

Cuba Street Carnival Cubacarnival.org.nz WHEN: This biennial event, alternating with the New Zealand International Arts festival, is usually held in the summer. Fringe Festival Fringe.org.nz WHEN:Usually held early in he year World of wearable art Worldofwearableart.co.nz WHEN: Late Septeber
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