How often does a small-to mid-sized city have the chance to remake itself as a cultural, artistic, and tourism hub? The founding of museums such as the Clifford Still Museum in Denver, the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Gehry Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, are once-in-a-generation events that have had transformative impact on those towns.
Whangarei, capital of the Northland Region of New Zealand, now has the opportunity to join that esteemed list. A public binding referendum from May 14 through June 5 will determine whether the city will build the Hundertwasser Wairau Maori Art Center to honor the life and work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The Austrian artist and architect came to New Zealand in 1976, creating a sustainable sanctuary in 372 ha of the entire Kaurinui valley near Kawakawa, Northland, and becoming a New Zealand citizen while maintaining a worldwide practice of exhibitions, architectural commissions, and writing. He immersed himself in nature and its humanistic relationship with art. Hundertwasser was buried at Kaurinui following his death at sea in 2000. A community-led group has pledged to raise the required $12m+ funds, with ratepayers expected to contribute just $2.8m to prepare Whangarei District Council-owned building for the major Hundertwasser refurbishment.
The art center will be a unique tribute to one of last century’s seminal artists and a great gift to the people of New Zealand. The art center will be the last Hundertwasser-designed building in the world (the Vienna-based Hundertwasser Non-Profit Foundation retrieved the original sketches from their archive and have given the project their full blessing and support. Using the original 1990’s Hundertwasser design, Heinz Springman, the architect on numerous Hundertwasser’s projects, has produced plans for the cultural center that captures the artist’s vision of boldly colored paintings and structural designs that use irregular forms and incorporate natural features into the landscape. The site in the heart of Whangarei’s beautiful waterfront and the facility would be a multi-faceted, multi-functional building with a state-of-the-art main gallery alongside New Zealand’s first curated contemporary Maori Art Gallery.
The art center promises to become an instant landmark—an iconic structure that will attract visitors from throughout New Zealand and the world. It will also be a boon to the local economy, with estimates suggesting the Art Centre will attract over 140,000 visitors each year, to the tune of $3.5 million per annum in net economic benefit to New Zealand’s Northland Region. Indeed, a report from worldwide consulting giant Deloitte states: “The Hundertwasser Art Centre will deliver cultural benefits at a local, national and international level and is well placed to make a solid economic contribution to the community.”
What cannot be measured in dollars, however, is the impact the museum would have on Whangarei’s identity. The Hundertwasser Wairau Maori Art Center would give New Zealand’s Northland region a way of distinguishing itself on the world stage—in the process instantly transforming the locale into a tourism magnet, and making the city synonymous with a great artist who deeply loved New Zealand and honored its Maori heritage. City branding does not generally happen overnight, and artistic and economic opportunities like this are rare. This referendum vote is a no-brainer from my perspective. Residents and ratepayers of Whangarei: Say yes to Hundertwasser!