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What really makes a city super?

It begs the question: just what does a thriving cultural sector bring to a city in terms of visitors, dollars, and the unique flavour that Absolutely Positively Wellington has been banging on about for years?

What really makes a city super?

Hamish Coney

[Art]

For the last few months the Auckland supercity debate has been simmering, but it will soon be on the boil if Rodney Hide has his way. The arts sector may well have cause to view this brave new dawn with a high degree of trepidation if a recent Hide comment is taken at face value: “I want to keep rate rises down and encourage councils to focus on core activities. On rubbish removal, water supply, roads and parks.”

While I can get as excited as the next man about a new stretch of tarseal or a sympathetically-placed sewage treatment plant, I’m sure that these are not quite the bait that the Minister of Tourism has in mind when he dreams of New Zealand being the number-one destination of the South Pacific.

It begs the question: just what does a thriving cultural sector bring to a city in terms of visitors, dollars, and the unique flavour that Absolutely Positively Wellington has been banging on about for years?

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In 2010, Monte Cecilia House transforms into The TSB Wallace Arts Centre and will be Auckland’s newest cultural tourism drawcard

A recent winter trip to Melbourne bought home to me exactly what can be achieved with a fulsome, generous and visionary public arts policy. During a five-day hop to Melbourne I took in the Salvador Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, a brilliant show on 20th century Modernist design at Heide Museum of Modern Art, the John Brack retrospective at the Ian Potter Centre and a whole host of exhibitions at public and private galleries.

According to Tourism Victoria, 912,000 international ‘cultural’ tourists visit Melbourne each year and the number is growing at the rate of nearly four percent per year. By the way, 13 percent of these visitors are New Zealanders. That means 10,000 Kiwis a month are popping across the ditch for the rich performing and visual arts experience that Melbourne delivers. I couldn’t access any data on visitor numbers for the myriad roading and infrastructure attractions that I’m sure Victoria provides, but I think you get my drift. Cultural tourism pulls big bucks.

So how are we doing in Godzone? Without doubt, Wellington does a brilliant job. Te Papa sits in the top 20 most visited museums in the world and after a year-long refurb the City Gallery will reopen in September with a trophy show by Yayoi Kusama, billed as Japan’s greatest living artist. I’ll definitely make a point of seeing that show as I imagine will plenty of culturally-aware folk from around the region—and I’m sure I’ll even fork out for the odd latte or quiche while I’m there.

Another arts hotspot I’ll be sure to check out is the fabulous New Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt, where for the second time I’ll enjoy the superb Felix Kelly exhibition ‘A Kiwi at Brideshead’. You may not have heard of Kelly who in the 1930s, like so many arty Kiwis, left New Zealand in his early twenties for the bright lights of London. He became an extremely successful designer and artist and the inspiration for the Charles Ryder character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. The point is that to keep our best and brightest at home, an exciting cultural milieu is at least as important as efficient rubbish collection.

While I can get as excited as the next man about a new stretch of tarseal or a sympathetically-placed sewage treatment plant, I’m sure that these are not quite the bait that the Minister of Tourism has in mind

In Auckland, too, good things are happening that will ensure a rich arts legacy for the future. The Auckland City Art Gallery is currently undergoing a massive restoration and redesign which when complete will add another 50 percent of exhibition space and result in an international quality art gallery. It can be no coincidence that American benefactors and Godzone fans Josie and Julian Robertson announced in February the gifting of an art collection that will vault the ACAG into the first rank of public art galleries globally. This extraordinary gift of paintings by modern masters such as Cezanne, Mondrian, Matisse, Gauguin and Dali is the most significant ever made to a gallery in Australasia. Perhaps a few Aussies might be planning to fly in to Auckland to see them when the gallery reopens in 2011.

Earlier this year I was present at the announcement of a very special joint venture between the City of Auckland and arts patron James Wallace. Stately Monte Cecilia House in Hillsborough will be refurbished to become the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre and will reopen in 2010 to house the 4,000 artworks of the Wallace collection and touring shows. This venerable old 19th century building will become the Heide of Auckland and provide generations worth of value to Auckland for the bargain investment of $6.7 million of ratepayers’ hard-earned cash. Guess who’ll be there sipping on a latte and munching on a yummy slice of quiche? Me, and lots of people like me from Wellington, Christchurch, London and LA. Even spoilt Melburnians won’t be able to keep away.