Thursday, December 9

The winding path from the Hundertwasser Art Center to its completion

The “many sleepless nights” are not over for the man who protects the legacy of Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

The Hundertwasser Art Center is almost finished

The Hundertwasser Art Center is almost finished
Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

Hundertwasser, one of the most famous European artists of the 20th century, spent 30 years living near Kawakawa before his death in 2000.

Now his latest unbuilt sketches are coming to a life laden with greenery, black and white checkered, covered with gold and in the basin of the city of Whangārei.

And Richard Smart, a Bay of Islands carpenter and architectural designer who worked for the Austrian-born artist for eight years, is the only representative of the Hundertwasser Foundation in Aotearoa.

Smart has to pinch himself upon seeing the new Whangārei art center, an idea on hold for decades, now only a few months away from completion.

A sketched print from the 1993 Hundertwasser Art Center.

A sketched print from the 1993 Hundertwasser Art Center.
Photo: Supplied

It will house works by Hundertwasser worth about $ 16 million, the only permanent collection outside of Vienna, as well as the Wairau Gallery, the world’s first gallery dedicated exclusively to contemporary Maori art.

But there are still “daily struggles”.

As of June of last year, project costs had exceeded $ 4 million.

Smart has seen Covid-19 cause more damage since then.

“This last block now, basically the site has lost a month. When there are three months left to open and you lose a month, that’s difficult.”

And with the borders closed, there are no qualified Hundertwasser curators in New Zealand to set up the exhibition.

He’s such a precise talent that even Smart can’t make it through video calls, so he flies to Austria next week to be admitted.

“This is the crux of the whole project,” he says, pointing to copies of Hundertwasser’s early 1993 sketches.

“People desperately complain that [the foundation] they are control freaks and they are this and they are that. But they do not disagree. They say no, that’s our job. “

Everything is going according to plan, in November Smart will have returned, MIQed, and will begin meticulously preparing the interior of the building for the opening on the birthday of his former boss, on December 15th.

The Hundertwasser Art Center under construction.

The Hundertwasser Art Center under construction.
Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

For some, the center is a ridiculous luxury built at the same time that the number of homeless people in Whangārei CBD increased from 21 to 293 in just two years.

For others, it’s the economic energizer Whangārei has always needed: pre-Covid predictions anticipated 250,000 annual visitors.

When the council abandoned its long-term plan building in 2014, the Prosper Northland Trust organized a resistance movement.

So a referendum was held in 2015 and the center’s proposal won.

But how was Whangārei going to pay for it?

The council gave the Prosper Northland Trust a two-year term to raise the first $ 16 million.

Somehow it did.

Barry Trass, a real estate developer by profession, dedicated thousands of volunteer hours to the campaign as a past president of the trust.

“We had takedowns, so many takedowns, and we could easily have given up multiple times. But we had a pretty good group of core people and then a lot of supporters who were relentless.”

Some of these hits were personal to Trass.

“Ads in the newspaper, spitting on me. I vandalized my property. I got all kinds of phone calls and letters.”

Some joined the crowd to see the 8-meter-high gold-covered dome hoisted on top of the building in June.

“I thought ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ But everyone was saying how good it looked. It was quite interesting. You have a bit of a laugh to yourself. “

Unfortunately, the disinformation being sold by some opponents has been kept on the sidelines.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

People have accused Hundertwasser of being pro-Nazi: the Jewish artist’s aunt and grandmother died in the Holocaust and he temporarily joined the Hitler Youth to protect his family from the SS.

Other objectors have tried to claim he was an extradited pedophile, a vicious lie spread by a spambot.

Libel is much less of a problem now, although six weeks ago Hātea Art Precinct management distributed draft responses for staff to respond to what they called “malicious” statements and “misleading” questions from the public.

Defenders like Trass hope that reputational attacks will decline even further when the gates open.

And, he says, the center has already been reason enough for a handful of “artistic” contacts to move to Whangārei.

“Now they bring a lot of rich friends.”

The project needs them.

Last year, Hātea Art Precinct predicted a surplus of $ 1.53 million six months after opening, but it has since dropped to just $ 19,000.

And this year’s statement of intent says “donations will be critical to our survival” and “we must charge an entrance fee.”

Whangārei's Hundertwasser Art Center is scheduled to open on December 15

Whangārei’s Hundertwasser Art Center is scheduled to open on December 15
Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

Perhaps a posthumous project designed by a creative who famously said “the straight line leads to the downfall of our civilization” was always going to have a winding path to completion.

The former president of the Whangārei Art Museum Trust, Grant Faber, believes that this has been the “nature” of it: to be “a hair” away from missing every milestone.

“The project could have collapsed on several different hurdles.”

And he believes the council should support him until the borders are reopened.

“They went through a fairly rigorous process that was contentious and the council was obviously divided. They came to a decision on the level at which they would support it and they have honored that position. But that line in the sand is very, very old.” . “

Faber is blunt: “It really has cost the taxpayer very little.”

Former Deputy Mayor Kahu Sutherland (Ngāti Whatua, Te Uri or Hau, Ngāti Kahungunu) has a similar sentiment and calls the council’s funding “a pittance.”

He went to Vienna in 2008 to win the support of the Hundertwasser Foundation (for the second attempt) to revive the idea.

“There have been a lot of negative spiel about it, the cost, but you can’t pay for something like this. You just can’t put a value on it.”

Mayor Sheryl Mai is the first to admit that the center has had “a tortuous road to its realization.”

And he acknowledges that the council’s $ 4.1 million contribution “pales to insignificance” compared to central government and philanthropic support.

But for now, he is confident that there will be enough visitors to “run a successful operation”, and beyond that, “there really is no need for local taxpayers to get involved.”

Wairau Māori Art Gallery Chairman of the Board of Directors, Elizabeth Ellis (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kuta, Ngāti Porou Te Whānau a Takimoana, Ngāi Tane) has stayed out of politics and “totally focused” on art itself .

She believes that the Wairau gallery is not yet well known and is convinced that admission should be free.

“I really want the Maori art gallery to have the Maori community,” he says, approaching from the Auckland blockade.

“It is a fact proven by other galleries in the country that charging people discourages people.”

A model of the Hundertwasser Art Center.

A model of the Hundertwasser Art Center.
Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

The project, from start to finish, would have been easier if New Zealand loved Hundertwasser as it loved New Zealand.

Richart Smart recalls that Hundertwasser offered stamp designs to the Postmaster General, the Koru flag design for the New Zealand flag, and a model for a national museum building (pre-Te Papa).

“I’m sure it got to him, he kept offering things and he kept getting rejected.”

He makes a face when he remembers how “the [national museum] model has just been quietly disposed of. “

“And today still no one knows what happened to him”,

But if Hundertwasser saw now what was going to happen, Smart believes that the artist would feel “vindicated.”

Opening day unfolds in Smart’s mind at times, and people start to flow.

“We’ll have them raining down on us. You know, let people complain about Auckland, we’ll be grateful for them.”

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