From Chapter 15 of the memoir Compass Points

Around 1996 I heard that a new sculpture was to be unveiled one Saturday morning in the Wellington Botanic Garden, which is close to where we live. I went along, thinking to myself, ‘Who are these people that presume to decide on what is the best sculpture to put up in our public places?’

The work, by Mary-Louise Browne, was a series of granite steps, carefully and elegantly laid up a grassy slope, with words of four letters carved into each step. Each word varied by one letter from the step below — the bottom word ‘BODY’ became ‘BONY’ at the next step, then ‘BOND’ until the 12th step at the top step said ‘SOUL’, giving the title, Body to Soul. It invited viewers to walk up — and become spiritually as well as physically elevated. I much admired the work and enjoyed meeting the people involved.

A year later another sculpture was unveiled nearby, and I went along to see that too. It was Rudderstone by Aucklander Denis O’Connor, a roughly 3.5 by 6 metre rectangle, divided vertically into two by a negative space shaped like a ship’s rudder. It had black marble embedded with fossils on one side, representing the old world from whence we had come, and bold stripes of blue and white marble on the other, representing the new world, the endless Pacific, into which we had arrived. Viewers were invited to walk through the rudder-shaped opening from one side to the other. It was a beautifully proportioned work of art, telling a story close to any New Zealand viewer’s heart, and again I thought it a real asset for the city.

The chairman of the Wellington Sculpture Trust, which had selected and raised funds for the work, was the widely known Dr Ian Prior. He said there was a vacancy for a new trustee — would I be interested? Of course. Three years later Ian indicated that age was telling him he ought to retire and he asked if I would take over. Again, with pleasure. It was clearly a challenge likely to be rewarding.

The other trustees were — and, despite regular turnover, still are — a wonderful group of people to work with, committed to the idea of incorporating public art into both the physical and emotional landscape of Wellington. The trust was structured so that the trustees who made the final decisions on the artworks were not normally art professionals, but informed and passionate individuals committed both to art and the city. It was supported by an arts advisory panel which did indeed represent art professionals. Rarely did the trustees disagree with the advisers on the choice of a new sculpture — it was always the intention, and usually the case, that the trustees and the advisers would come to the same conclusion.

The trustees also had a close, symbiotic even, relationship with the city. Successive mayors advocated the principle that it was much better to have an experienced body choosing the city’s public sculptures, avoiding political rows over which works and which sculptors and which locations. Our activities also saved the council large sums of money: it would show its support materially by a grant to each, normally of about a fifth of the cost. We raised the rest from any available source, giving the city roughly an 80% discount on an extensive collection of New Zealand’s best public sculptures.

Most of the sites we chose were council property, providing another link since it had to approve these. Then we arranged to give each sculpture, when it was finished and signed off, to the city as a permanent asset — but also, perhaps, a liability because thereafter the council assumed responsibility for its maintenance.

My first project, while Ian was still chairman, was to give some oversight to the installation of Kaiwhakatere, The Navigator, by the Auckland Maori artist Brett Graham. Unusually, our preferred site was a small park behind Parliament Buildings, and so owned by the central government and administered by the Parliamentary Services Commission. I accompanied Ian on a call to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Doug Kidd, to make our case. He took advice and came back to us: yes, the site could be available, but the work chosen should be capable of being shifted because parliament might at some time in the future wish to place a building on it. The work selected, after much internal and later external controversy, was not chosen in deliberate defiance of that condition, but I would hate to be in charge of having to move it.

Early in the 2000s I heard of a private trust that was willing to donate $250,000 to the city for public sculpture. It wanted its money to be the core funding, with more to be raised by the recipient, for four sculptures on the City’s main shopping thoroughfare, Lambton Quay. It did not admire contemporary, abstract or non-figurative sculpture, and so sought an alternative to dealing with the Sculpture Trust. But its negotiations with the city and others were drawn-out and unproductive, although the city was very happy to find and allocate sites, and I sought to engage them on the basis that the trust would produce work to high standard, acceptable to the city and the public, if not exactly traditional statues.

Not all the trustees were convinced it was a good plan for us to place works on such prominent and busy sites, one calling the project a can of worms. I reckoned that she could well be right but we had to try, and that all the potential complications must ultimately be manageable. Finally with the help of Ray Matthews, who represented the donor family, a deal was arranged, with the chairman Denis Griffin of the donor body, the Jack and Emma Griffin Charitable Trust, sitting on the selection panel.

Denis became deeply involved, agreeing on a brief for the artists, and listening to the arts advisory panel explain, once submissions had been received, the reasons for their recommendations and for avoiding some of the others. One Denis liked, but could get no support for from other panellists or advisers, of a figure of a commuter walking to work in Wellington’s strong wind, impressed him sufficiently to make an appointment with the artist. He came back from that shaking his head and agreeing with the rest of us.

Of the four chosen, Denis was particularly in favour of Anton Parsons’ Invisible City, two large ‘bookends’ of stainless steel, above head height, with giant braille bumps over the surfaces — not for the reasons most of us had but because he had suffered the death of a close, blind, relative.

The multiple issues were resolved to the extent that three (the other two were Jeff Thomson’s Shells and Bob Jahnke’s Spinning Top) of the four choices went ahead and achieved artworld and popular support, but in unexpected proportions: the one I thought would be most popular was probably the most controversial.

The fourth chosen was an arch of internally lit perspex boxes, subsequently ruled out by the owners of the buildings in Woodward Street to which it would have to be attached. Phil Price’s Protoplasm now sited on Lambton Quay and Hunter Street proved a readily acceptable substitute.

Lloyd Jones, an award-winning writer able to cross that often difficult bridge from literature to the visual arts, came onto the trust around the time that I did, with the specific intention of promoting kinetic sculptures that showed Wellington’s wind in a positive light. He teamed with two old school friends to initiate what became the Meridian Energy Wind Sculpture Walk, starting with a huge cluster of tall reeds that bent and clattered in the wind, Pacific Grass, designed and installed by Kon Dimopoulos.

The site for the series was along an undeveloped stretch of roadside and beach near Wellington’s airport. Phil Price’s Zephyrometer, Andrew Drummond’s Tower of Light, Leon van den Eijkel’s Urban Forest and Phil Dadson’s Akau Tangi followed, to a timetable much more protracted than we or our sponsors could have thought possible, caused in each case by the unique challenges of new technology and a severely robust harbourside environment. Over ten years the walk of five large kinetic sculptures was completed, an exceptional and dominant feature defining the southern entry from the airport to the city. Each responds to the force of the winds in a different way, bending, pivoting, spinning, illuminating and creating sound.

We have put in many others and it is a long, demanding and greatly rewarding process. Wellington’s waterfront hosts two of the largest, each taking more than five years: Len Lye’s Water Whirler and Michel Tuffery’s Nga Kina. Another of a very large scale was Regan Gentry’s Subject to Change on State Highway 1 at Karo Drive. The form and title reflected Regan’s take on what had happened to that part of the city, but the sculpture was also subjected to changes of an unexpected nature — the site was changed on us and him three times as institutions changed their minds about land availability, but it ended well with a standout location.

Seismic is a gem, in Bunny Street outside Victoria University’s Rutherford House. Louise Purvis magically carved four large discs of white marble in textures that capture the essence of the different seismic forces to which we are subjected.

Debates about sculpture and installation art, as well as other visual arts, abound endlessly. It has been conspicuous over the past decade or two for arts schools and many galleries to emphasise the temporary, the found objects, the technologies of film and digital media and those artworks where the material product is only a vehicle for conveying a social comment, a context. It is often stimulating and imaginative but in respect of public art, and in many cases private art too, there are no signs of it displacing durable works that become embedded in our townscapes and on our gallery walls. While the art world is advancing one set of ideas about what it is all about, cities worldwide are commissioning permanent works in greater numbers and increasing cost to establish their place as a vibrant supporter of creativity and well-rounded living for creative citizens. It is arts for the economy’s sake. The temporary is finding its spaces alongside the durable, and both are expanding to an explosive degree.

The trust decided in the mid-2000s to engage with the temporary, although not quite the transient. I puzzled over the four large cubes or bollards, two metres high and square, stretching between the national museum Te Papa and Circa Theatre roughly marking the boundary between Te Papa’s forecourt and Wellington’s waterfront. The structures were ideal for co-opting as plinths for sculptures while the location with such high pedestrian traffic was also ideal. The thought of determining permanent sculpture for such a prominent position was daunting; the matching thought was that the plinths were ideal for showcasing changing, temporary sculptures.

And so was born the 4 Plinths Sculpture Award, by which we commissioned a new work for the site every two years, in time for the opening of the biennial International Arts Festival. The first round produced a superb and popular outcome, Regan Gentry’s Green Islands, silver wire trees on each plinth, in a way the antithesis of green, but commenting on the tree-deprived nature of the extensive paved site around the plinths, and making each plinth an island of sorts. The task of making the trees was a mammoth one and took Regan the best part of a year. I visited him at the workshop in Petone where he was working on them, an amazing effort of concentration and strength over many long months.

It is an example of the definitional difficulties of what is temporary that these sculptures were purchased at the end of their time on the plinths, and given a permanent home in Wellington’s Botanic Garden. And it is a commentary on art interpretation and context when they ended up in a verdant green surrounding, the opposite of what they had been designed for. But one day a film crew went to them as part of making a film on Wellington’s sculptures and were amazed to see more birds flocking in the wire trees than the real ones!

The trust has sustained the project, and increased the funding available from $20,000 to $40,000 for each installation. At the time of this writing the fifth in the series, Kereama Taepa’s a (very) short history of aotearoa, is currently installed until 2018. Long may they last.

We are sometimes faced with the proposition that the sculptures should be figurative, or beautiful. We did install one sculpture in my time that might be described as figurative, Virginia King’s Woman of Words commemorating Katherine Mansfield on the edge of Midland Park. It is not a literal or traditional statue, but a stylised, larger-than-life representation of the writer. The selection of that was the most divisive, within the trust, of any we have chosen, but the result impressive and firmly popular with the public.

I must say I have never approached the task of commissioning artworks with the idea of promoting beauty. It is more a matter of finding works that reflect current concepts of the best art with the need — because they fall into that special category of art in public places — to find a constructive degree of public acceptance. There is no point in placing on a street corner an art work that needs to be removed because of public hostility, however valued it might be by those professionally engaged with art.

A few years ago I heard a radio interview with the expatriate New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell, who had won a prestigious international award in Scotland, answering the rather good question, ‘What were the competition organisers looking for?’ He responded, ‘A work that pushes out the boundaries without losing its accessibility.’ You beauty, I thought, that says just what we’re after with public sculpture for Wellington. That notion has actually been around for a while. A very famous American designer of some decades ago, Raymond Loewy, of Lucky Strike cigarette package fame and much else, worked to the acronym MAYA: ‘Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.’

My fortuitous involvement with the trust led to a wider engagement with sculpture around New Zealand. I was asked to speak at a variety of conferences about art or landscaping or other fields on how sculpture related to their work, and to a variety of clubs and organisations about how the trust went about its work. I had a number of invitations to talk to groups of art leaders or city councillors who were interested in setting up mechanisms for increasing public art in their cities, including Taupo, Hamilton and Nelson. I was invited to be a selection panellist for Upper Hutt, Nelson and some other centres. The growing enthusiasm around the country was palpable and it was satisfying to see many of ‘our’ artists selected for commissions elsewhere.

The sculptors themselves seem as diverse as any cross-section of the population. Some have doctorates and may be professors of art; some seem to have been self-taught. They can be of any race, age and social background, or of either sex. But they all have a remarkable dedication to their chosen art form. Some will make every component of their artwork no matter the size or materials, while others freely contract out much of the fabrication. Some have a strong initial response to a site or a project, while others take their time as their ideas evolve and mature. But they all reach a point of commitment and get locked in. I have profound respect and affection for every work the trust commissioned and the artist/ sculptor behind each.

Sculpture led to a change of focus in our overseas travels too: sculpture parks and public sculpture in city streets came into sharper focus. Some required a full day’s journey from the nearest city, and then good exercise as well as good art. They make good family outings. The works to be seen are amazingly diverse and creative, yet it is clear that our sculptors are producing works that stand up to the best abroad.