Kawakawa, a tiny junction town in the Bay of Islands, is home to less than a thousand people.

Over the last year, the town has had over 250,000 visitors.

Why so many? It's home to public toilets designed by a world-famous artist.

Frederick Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist and architect who lived in the area for 20 years before his death in 2000. The toilet block he designed for Kawakawa, a playful creation with organic curves, walls imbedded with bottles, multi-coloured tiles and shiny pillars, has proved a massive hit.

Now the town is building an information centre to “celebrate his life and his relationship with the area,” says Laurell Pratt, a local involved in developing the new centre, who also runs Kings Theatre Creative Space.  Laurell says the toilets have changed the town. “It’s created an energy here, a community spirit. Kawakawa is like a cultural junction that tourists, also, are really interested in.”

Down the road, a ‘complementary’ project has recently been given the green light. Whangarei will build a Hundertwasser-designed gallery, having successfully raised the funds needed just as AA Directions went to press.

As well as focusing on the art and architecture of Hundertwasser, the centre will exhibit local and national art and provide a permanent showplace for Maori contemporary art. It's projected to bring $22 million into the region each year and, considering the impact of art on tourism elsewhere in New Zealand, that's realistic.

What inspires travel plans? For many, it is art. They’ll book a trip to Auckland while an international touring show is on at the Auckland Art Gallery. They’ll check what’s showing at the Christchurch Art Gallery before arranging their weekend. And they’ll drive to New Plymouth especially to visit the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

Since the Govett-Brewster reopened two years ago with the addition of the Len Lye Centre, visitor numbers have climbed around 55% annually to well over 100,000, says Director Simon Rees. He says the gallery’s appeal has expanded from a contemporary art audience to a more general audience.

Visitors are also attracted to Taranaki’s festivals, such as WOMAD, and to the new Pouakai Crossing. However Venture Taranaki confirms visitor numbers have steadily risen since the Len Lye Centre opened, despite a decline in business travel due to slowing oil and gas and dairy sectors.  And the gallery was a key factor in Lonely Planet judging the region the world’s second-best regional destination in its 2017 Best in Travel Awards.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, public galleries are also pulling their weight in the business of attracting tourists. The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt has opened a new café  and Communications Manager, Alex Grace, reports visitor numbers are healthy: “Thanks to a dynamic exhibition schedule providing something new for repeat visitors.”

She believes tourists often have a ‘top ten’ of things to do when visiting a new place and the best local gallery will frequently be on that list.

In Whanganui, major renovations for the historic Sarjeant Gallery are being finalised. Serious fundraising is well underway and plans are to have the gallery expanded and refreshed in time to celebrate its centenary in 2019.

Nelson is a few steps ahead. The Suter Art Gallery, a New Zealand heritage building constructed in 1899, last year opened new gallery spaces, a foyer and an internal walkway linking new to old. The project was designed by Warren and Mahoney in partnership with Jerram Tocker Barron Architects. It has won awards and it is attracting more visitors than ever before.

Rodney Sampson of Warren and Mahoney says the architectural firm has worked on many gallery projects over the years. As well as Nelson’s Suter Gallery, Warren and Mahoney was involved in the National Library in Wellington’s refurbishment and is working on the Sarjeant project.

“For the work we’ve been doing recently, we’ve been involved from the early stages when a gallery is considering why they want to rejuvenate. What is the inspiration? More people through the door is just one thing,” Rodney says.

He explains there is a more pragmatic side to gallery renovation. Some of the country’s beautiful but elderly galleries have struggled with inferior exhibition spaces and poor storage facilities.

“Collections need to be safe and secure and galleries need to be seismically safe also, so they can host touring exhibitions, expanding upon what shows they have.
It gives them the ability to grow.”

He notes that the cultural scene in New Zealand is enjoying a revitalisation. “You can see it is generating numbers of people wanting to be involved. Some would say we are culturally mature, we have confidence and are comfortable with being involved in art. People are acknowledging the value of it now.”

Director of Auckland’s craft and design gallery, Objectspace, Kim Paton, agrees.

“There is a huge audience. New Zealand’s creative industries are very healthy. How many people have an avid interest in design, a hobby interest in craft or a love of houses? It’s massive. The major renovations and developing of art galleries (in New Zealand) is a very positive story and this development is also,” Kim says.

Objectspace, a public gallery dedicated to craft, applied art and design, has received enough support and public funding to upgrade significantly. A new gallery, opening soon in Ponsonby, will be three times larger than the old space and will accommodate an increased focus on architecture.

Kim’s confident Objectspace will be a ‘destination gallery’ that people will travel especially to visit. Most major cities in the world have a design museum; international tourists expect to find quality galleries here that tell New Zealand stories, reveal insights, and add depth to their experience of this country.

“I know that when I travel it’s the cultural institutions open to the public that are markers on my way,” Kim says. “And it’s often the smaller institutions that really catch my imagination and that I want to return to, again and again.” 

Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions winter 2017 issue

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