New Plymouth opens the doors to its new combined Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre next month. The iconic project has attracted intense interest from a wide variety of interested parties. Three key players talk about the challenges they faced and lessons learned.
In December 1962 Monica Brewster (née Govett) endowed her hometown of New Plymouth a significant sum to build the sort of art museum that had inspired her on her international travels. Monica Brewster also authored for that gift one of the most visionary trust deeds of its time, ensuring the perpetuity, independence and internationalism of the Govett Brewster Art Gallery that opened in 1970.
Today, the Govett-Brewster – New Zealand’s first and only contemporary art museum – is owned and operated by the New Plymouth District Council. Closed since April 2013 for earthquake strengthening, compliance, upgrades and construction of the Len Lye Centre, it is due to reopen as a combined art museum on July 25 this year.
We asked three of the project’s key players about the challenges they’ve faced.
New Plymouth District Council
The development of this major cultural institution is an evolution that has its origins in a unique combination of place, people and circumstance. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced this twice in
Taranaki – first with the creation of Puke Ariki, our renowned, integrated museum / library / information centre, and now the new combined Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre.
It takes time – much more time than people realise – as well as clear leadership, to create a landmark cultural institution. Unlike the building of a bridge or a road, a new art institution is less easily definable. It’s an experience that people interpret in a very personal way. There are always many leaders and teams involved to create the best outcome.
The leadership role of the council is two-fold: council managers knit together diverse challenges, solutions, concepts and competing ideas to form a cohesive proposal, and an elected council makes the bold decision to proceed with the (usually) controversial and politically-challenging project. Without that leadership, you won’t have a clear project vision – and you certainly won’t get the backing of financial partners, such as those who committed $11.5 million for the construction of the Len Lye Centre. We are grateful to those partners who believe in this project.
As for the time involved in such developments, Puke Ariki’s starting point was 20 years before the facility’s doors opened. The Len Lye Centre’s formal beginning was in 2003 when the council established a Len Lye working party in partnership with the Len Lye Foundation. Together they were tasked to produce a strategy that would “cement and enhance New Plymouth’s special relationship with Len Lye, with the focus on collection care, conservation and maximising opportunities for access to the collection”.
The driving force has been the vision of Len Lye himself – realising a 20th century dream in the 21st century – of New Plymouth becoming a world centre for the care, display, research and development of the works and ideas of this remarkable New Zealander.
Len Lye Project Director
My job is to coordinate five core project teams: building and physical fit-out; new institution creation; creation of works; fundraising; and communication and community engagement, to ensure there are no gaps between the needs of the key stakeholders and the new facility.
The greatest challenge in this project has been the intense interest from a variety of parties. We have the expert eyes of the Len Lye Centre Trust and the Len Lye Foundation, the gallery staff (who will be curating and working in the building), district councillors, the architect, the contractor, adjacent businesses and the general public. All these parties have valid opinions, concerns and suggestions, and all have to be brought along with you as you create this unique art museum.
There has also been the physical challenge of ensuring a seamless connection between a new building and an old building which needed significant seismic strengthening. This was especially challenging when you’re making connections for visitor flow or a single HVAC system that must meet New Zealand museum standards.
The key thing I have learned from this project is that you can do years of consultation with stakeholders before going out to tender but that will not be the end of the consultation. During construction of a landmark art institution there will always be creative tension between interested parties, along with a continuing evolution of ideas and technology, and new people coming on board who see opportunities for the project.
We put the construction contract out for tender two years ago and in that time digital technology, and health and safety requirements for a major public facility have advanced, and we had to address that.
The project scope now includes technology for visitors to interact wirelessly with exhibitions. And safety access platforms and internal ceiling walkways for staff have been installed to enable safe work practices on a building that reaches a height of nine metres in some areas.
You have to keep talking with people as elements of the plan change and new opportunities arise, and consider how that might influence other elements of the project.
In fact, the only thing that remains locked in place in a large project like this is the budget.
Art Gallery Director
Right from the start we’ve been working through the challenge of how to create an institution that combines two strong brands – the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Len Lye Centre – without one brand being lost in the other.
This has required smart business planning to ensure the new museum is successful as an integrated facility while delivering two different, if related, experiences with the Len Lye Collection and Archive, and the Govett-Brewster Collection.
Throughout the planning, design and construction process the public focus has been on the Len Lye Centre’s spectacular design and the cost of operating it. Once the doors open in July our team will face the challenge of shifting public focus to the artworks and exhibition experiences.
We can’t be all things to all people, especially with contemporary art, but we will strive to appeal to as many different people, audiences and commercially-oriented groups as we can – engaging with local, national and international community expectations.
The architecture of the Len Lye Centre is an artwork in itself and will draw visitors. However, we need to attract people through the doors to explore the legacy of Len Lye, ideas and artwork that was previously only occasionally accessible to the public.
We must also deliver a groundbreaking arts experience in a commercially- viable way. This has required substantial fundraising for the building’s design and construction and careful management of the ongoing operational costs, as well as an exploration of commercial opportunities through the new facility.
This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.