Capital Of Creativity
New Zealand's "Harbour City" is home to a roaring arts scene. Here's why
By Mark Amery
At the southern tip of the North Island, Wellington is compact and walkable, ringed by tertiary institutions sitting cheek by jowl with government buildings. The city is also a crucible for artistic energy. Creative ideas get tested here, spilling onto the streets from lively galleries and art spaces, where artists, designers, writers and hangers-on gather for openings, screenings, book launches and performances. They mix with curators and dealers who collect the work of New Zealand's finest artists. It's a social affair, lubricated by Wellington's much-heralded café, bar, restaurant and brewery scenes.
Artists are attracted to Wellington because it's a place they can quickly make their own. New spaces and exhibition opportunities pop up, with the city small and friendly enough to see work gain the attention of an eclectic mix of people. For the visitor, the energy is evident immediately from the city's wealth of public art: it's hard to walk a block without stumbling upon an artwork. Explore a little further, up staircases and down side streets, and all sorts of happenings are to be found.
Major institutions stud the waterfront: New Zealand's national museum Te Papa Tongarewa houses the national art collection; the city's largest public contemporary art space City Gallery Wellington dedicates a room to new works by Maori and Pacific Island artists; and the energy of shows at the Academy of Fine Arts and New Zealand Portrait Gallery belie any fustiness their monikers might suggest.
Arguably the heart of the dealer/ gallery district is at the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets. Here, up a creaky old staircase, is one of the country's oldest art rooms, Peter McLeavey Gallery - and above it, Suite Gallery. Around the corner in Ghuznee are long-standing Hamish McKay Gallery and Bowen Galleries. Page Blackie Gallery and AVID are closer to City Gallery in Victoria Street.
Newer gallerists take Wellington's inner-city-living ethos literally. Mark Hutchins lives above his gallery in Willis Street and, back in Ghuznee, you often have to step past Alison Bartley's dog in her home courtyard to enter Bartley + Company Art.
Increasingly, local artists are taking to the streets. Lauren Redican and Annsuli Marais leave enigmatic yet empowering messages on billboards, the latest outside Bartley + Company Art. Across the road, Shane McGrath's Helter Skelter Rocket work revels in humour, collaging references in wood. McGrath previously created a giant zeppelin out of lingerie in emerging artist space Toi Poneke.
During 2012, Mary Whalley left small bronze hands embedded in city seats and railings, placing flowers and notes in them as gifts to pedestrians. This summer, in parks, she's making further beautiful public gestures by inviting people to tables to create their own small clay sculptures.
In Wellington, different art disciplines mix easily. There's no better example than annual event The Performance Arcade, housed in shipping containers on the waterfront. Returning to it this year is Samin Son, whose performances - inspired by his time in the Korean Army - have been both electrifying and disturbing art partygoers all over town.
It's also worth searching the web for details of events at a host of energetic emerging art spaces. Down paint- and poster-clad Eva Street, The Russian Frost Farmers Gallery is a laboratory for creative adventures of all kinds, as is new open-source space 19 Tory Street, with a window ingeniously devoted to jewellery micro-gallery The See Here. Round the corner in Courtenay Place is dynamic new space 30upstairs.
The longest-running local lynchpin for emerging talent is Enjoy Public Art Gallery, just across the landing from Peter McLeavey Gallery in Cuba Street. As elsewhere in Wellington, young and old mix in the stairwell - and if you need a drink or coffee after all that art, you've come to the right city.
Be Here Now
The Performance Arcade
13-18 February. Outside Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington waterfront, www.theplaygroundnz.com/the-performance-arcade-2013
Public Sculpture Tables
23 & 24 February. Collaborative public art installations by Mary Whalley. To find out locations, go to www.sculpturetable.tumblr.com
Until 23 February. Lauren Redican and Annsuli Marais, Bartley + Company Art, 56A Ghuznee St, Wellington, www.bartleyandcompanyart.co.nz