The New Arts Centre That Has Whangarei Buzzing

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28 March 2022

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The Hundertwasser Arts Centre in Whangarei, New Zealand.

Kathleen Drumm, the chief executive of the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery, grew up in Whangarei. Her father, Brian, was the headmaster of Tikipunga High School, which she and her four siblings attended.

He believed in an arts-based education. She remembers James K. Baxter visiting the school at her father’s invitation and murals that were painted by local artists. “My father was a man who believed in debate and ideas. He interacted with people who were thoughtful and engaged with social progress.”

The Hundertwasser Art Centre is at the heart of a downtown Whangarei revitalisation programme that initially polarised the town but has since won over citizens. The building is expected to draw thousands of visitors when it opens on February 20 and has already transformed the basin waterfront, sitting like a bejewelled and beautiful animal beside a wide boardwalk and the river’s rim. It has all the wonders of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s inimitable style; his insistence that man-made structures kneel on this earth; beg pardon to nature.Strange Encounters, a painting by Friedrich Hundertwasser.

Strange Encounters by Friedrich Hundertwasser.

The charm of the building and the delight of the uneven lines, the curving walls and the undulating tiles are a drawcard for anyone walking nearby. The rooftop garden gives the appearance of it being tucked into a hillside. In fact, the building itself is like a lovely hill to climb; from the winding rampart that takes you up to the cafeteria, to the golden onion dome that draws your eye to the sky.

Kathleen worked in the film industry for two decades – first for the New Zealand Film Commission, then Screen Australia, before she landed a plum role as Industry Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, where her role encompassed driving growth for the festival – and business (and professional development) opportunities for directors, actors and writers. She stayed in Canada for five years before being lured back home for Hundertwasser.

“The timing was right – my husband Stephen and I had been thinking of what it meant to be a New Zealander, and about making a change – and then I saw the job advertisement and it felt instinctively like the next step,” Kathleen says.

From its inception nearly 30 years ago when Whangarei’s mayor, Stan Semenoff, invited Hundertwasser to design an art centre for the city, the building has been fought for and supported by an extraordinary number of dedicated volunteers who raised money and donated time and effort. Kathleen came on board when the building was green-lit and the foundations were in the ground. But after the Christchurch earthquakes, a whole new building code impacted the build – and the project’s budget. She had only been in the job for a few months when she found herself having to figure out how to raise more than $4 million to keep the project on track.

Armed with Hundertwasser’s advice that “the straight line leads to hell”, she turned out to be the perfect woman for a curly job. Using the revenue-generating skills she learned in Toronto, she formed a tight team of determined people around her who met weekly to devise strategy and within six months they had raised the extra millions. Throughout, the Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna has worked closely with the New Zealand architects, construction team and specialists to scrutinise all aspects of the build, to ensure it was constructed in accordance with his code of practice.

 Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an older man with a beard wearing a hat.

Artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

When the gallery is open, nearly 80 original Hundertwasser artworks, including paintings and tapestries as well as selected writings and manifestos, will be on display at the Hundertwasser Art Centre. So, too, will be the 3D models he made of the many buildings he designed – including his proposal for the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa). The centre will house the only permanent public display of Hundertwasser’s art in the world outside Vienna.

“We want to fuel conversations about the profound relationship between people, the environment and art, within a remarkable building dedicated to Hundertwasser’s philosophy,” Kathleen says. “And along the way we are determined to drive social and economic progress for the people of Northland.”

Alongside an extensive gallery that displays Hundertwasser’s work, the Art Centre also features Wairau Māori Art Gallery – New Zealand’s only permanent space for the best in contemporary Māori art. Wairau has its own board and its changing exhibitions are being put together by some of the country’s leading Māori curators. There is also an afforested roof with gold leaf cupola, an activity centre and a gift shop. So get ready for some high-class merch from Europe with the T-shirt, coffee cup, bookmark, jewellery, porcelain and a raft of other items – all original designs by the artist himself.

I ask Kathleen if it’s risky opening a building devoted to a bearded European famous in the ’70s or whether now is the right time for such an arts centre. She has a ready reply: “Hundertwasser was prescient – a man who was ahead of his time. He was a visionary ecological thinker. He was born in Austria but he called New Zealand home. He was an internationalist, painter, philosopher, architect and designer whose work is inspirational.”

And as for the relevance of art, she says: “Covid has demonstrated how people seek the solace that art provides. Art restores hope and reminds us that we are not alone. It can bring huge joy and elicit powerful emotions. The imagination provides something intangible that is necessary for our survival and always has been. We need art now more than ever.”

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