The tiny North Island town that is a world-class center for art and design

Jack Marsden Mayer creates driftwood animal sculptures in his studio in Whanganui.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Jack Marsden Mayer creates driftwood animal sculptures in his studio in Whanganui.

Whanganui is a dormant creative capital.

The modest city of 42,000 people was named the first and only UNESCO City of Design of Aotearoa in August last year, joining the ranks of other booming cultural hubs such as Buenos Aires, Seoul, Dubai and Berlin.

Laetitia Laubscher reflects on what makes the small coastal town on the Lower North Island a world-class center for art and design.

For anyone wanting to experience the artistic side of Whanganui, your first stop should be a stroll through downtown Whanganui where you’ll find murals created during the biannual Whanganui Walls outdoor art festival.

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Bikers pass 'Bearing' by David McCracken.

Wanganui & Partners

Bikers pass ‘Bearing’ by David McCracken.

Artists include Pat Perry (50 Victoria Ave) – who has worked for the BBC, VICE and The New York Times, Wellington award-winning psychedelic illustrator Gina Kiel (17 Taupo Quay) and British-born street artist Hayley Welsh (30 Victoria Ave) who has had exhibitions in London and New York. See Whanganui Walls’ Instagram (@WhanganuiWalls) for a full street art map.

Next, head to Drews Avenue, where parking lots have been removed and a semi-permanent “living street” has been installed in the city’s arts district as part of the Whanganui Innovating Streets program. The historic district features interactive artwork like a bus stop outfitted with musical instruments and a phone booth telling stories from the area.

New Zealand Glassworks organizes glassblowing workshops for beginners.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

New Zealand Glassworks organizes glassblowing workshops for beginners.

The city is also full of galleries, ranging from the traditional to the unconventional. New Zealand Glassworks – Te Whare Tūhua o Te Ao (NZG) is the national center for art glass in the country, helping to bring together a well-established community of glass artists in Whanganui and across New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the Quartz, Museum of Studio Ceramics is the only museum dedicated to studio ceramics in Aotearoa New Zealand and the largest collection of studio ceramics on permanent display, with over 1000 works by artists including Anneke Borren, Len Castle, Elizabeth Lissaman, John Parker and Rick Rudd.

For those looking to see historic artwork, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi – The Māori Court at the Whanganui Regional Museum features the waka taua (war canoe) Te Mata o Hoturoa and an internationally acclaimed collection of Māori taonga , as well as the Lindauer Galerie, which presents a selection of paintings by Gottfried Lindauer, best known for his portraits of Maori chiefs.

Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui.

Wanganui & Partners

Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui.

Speaking of galleries, the Tā Archie Taiaroa Pataka wing of the prestigious regional gallery Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua is a future calling card of the city for those who wish to visit it in the near future. Co-designed alongside more than 20 mana whenua artists from the Whanganui River, the neoclassical redevelopment blends contemporary design with local cultural expression to create a structure that is “unmistakably Whanganui”. It is the largest artistic development in the lower part of the North Island since Te Papa.

While the redevelopment is underway, it’s still worth seeing the site-specific wall designs created by four local artists, Cecilia Kumeroa, Simon Ormerod, Dan Mills and Mike Marsh surrounding the building site, as well as heading to the pop – up Sarjeant on the Quay – a chic downtown warehouse space on Taupō Quay displaying a curated selection of classic and contemporary works from its wider collection.

Sarjeant on Whanganui Quay on Taupō Quay.

Wanganui & Partners

Sarjeant on Whanganui Quay on Taupō Quay.

Finally, end your tour with a treasured highlight of Whanganui, St. Paul’s Church in Pūtiki. Designed and built by master carver Āpirana Ngata (whose face you can see on our $50 note), the interior of the church is a rich and decorative fusion of Maori and Pākehā architecture, religious beliefs, culture, legends and mythology – and the only one of its kind ever built.

Whanganui’s creativity has already garnered international attention, and with international borders open, now is a good time to visit before hordes of tourists become the city’s de facto setting.

Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Follow the instructions on covid19.govt.nz.

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