The earliest forms of public art in New Zealand were pou (poles made from trees) and other Māori carvings. After Pākehā settlement these were followed by statues of 19th-century colonial leaders, town founders and other notable individuals. The first was the statue of Canterbury founder John Robert Godley, unveiled in 1867. Statues and monuments were also erected in public places in the 19th and 20th centuries to commemorate wars.
Objects like town clocks and fountains can be considered early forms of public art. Elaborate gates to public parks and sculptural decorations on buildings enabled people to see and appreciate art without stepping into galleries and museums.
New public sculpture
Contemporary, non-commemorative sculpture began appearing in public places like civic squares, shopping centres and commercial buildings in the 1950s. Locating modern sculpture in these places made it part of everyday life.
Unsurprisingly, Russell Clark was a firm advocate of public sculpture. He said: ‘I believe it is important that the public should become used to outdoor sculpture and to accept it as they would any other seriously-conceived decorative work. There is certainly room in the country for greater use of both architectural and commemorative sculpture.’1
Sculptor Russell Clark gained a number of public commissions from the 1950s. His work exposed the New Zealand public to modern forms of sculpture and his public commissions revived and modernised civic statuary.
Clark’s public sculptures include the Timaru Post Office sculpture (1957), ‘Anchor stones’ (1958–59), in front of the Bledisloe Building in central Auckland, and ‘Family group’ (1960), originally in the Hay’s Shopping Centre in Christchurch and now held by the University of Canterbury.
Other sculptors whose work appeared in public places after Clark’s pioneering pieces included Molly Macalister (‘Maori warrior’, Auckland, 1964–66, and ‘Little bull’, Hamilton, 1967); Jim Allen (‘Conversation piece’, Pakuranga, 1967); Greer Twiss (‘Karangahape rocks’, Auckland, 1967–69); and Marté Szirmay (‘Smirnoff sculpture’, Auckland, 1969).
Institutional and corporate commissions
More institutions and corporations commissioned sculptures for public display in the 1970s. Don Driver, Marté Szirmay, Tom Taylor and Greer Twiss created works for the Auckland Medical School building in 1975 and 1976. Guy Ngan made wall sculptures for public buildings, including the Reserve Bank in Wellington and the Newton Post Office in Auckland.
Public sculpture flourished during the corporate boom of the 1980s, as large companies adorned their buildings and forecourts with art. Council-administered arts bonus schemes provided for new sculptures as part of building developments until the Resource Management Act 1991 prohibited the height rule exemptions offered to developers who funded public sculptures.
The foundation of the Wellington Sculpture Trust in 1983 gave a considerable boost to public sculpture. By 2014 the trust had commissioned 26 sculptures in Wellington, which were gifted to the council on completion.
Henry Moore down under
There is one example of world-renowned English sculptor Henry Moore’s work in New Zealand. Bronze form was bought as a joint venture between the Wellington City Council, the Wellington Sculpture Trust and Fletcher Challenge, and installed in Midland Park in 1986. It was moved to the Salamanca Lawn of the Wellington Botanic Garden in 1995.
Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin developed significant collections of public sculptures, as did smaller cities such as Hastings and New Plymouth. Rotorua was distinguished by its collection of Māori public art. By the 2000s public sculptures had become an integral part of urban environments.
Temporary sculptures are a feature of 21st-century public art. They were anticipated by the outdoor performance art and installations of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Barry Thomas’s high-profile ‘Vacant lot of cabbages’ (Wellington, 1978), on the site of two demolished buildings.
In 1987 Marté Szirmay’s stainless steel and water sculpture was installed in the Chase Plaza building in Auckland. It was a major feature of the building but was dismantled after the Chase Corporation collapsed, and only survives in photos.
Temporary works are a key part of Christchurch’s SCAPE public art biennial events. Since 2008 the Wellington Sculpture Trust has mounted the biennial ‘Four plinths’ project outside the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Temporary works are a feature of arts and fringe festivals.
Public sculptures are typically commissioned from prominent artists with high standing in the fine arts community. Some sculptors are well known for their public work, including Neil Dawson, Paul Dibble, Regan Gentry, Christine Hellyar, Virginia King, Cathryn Monro, Phil Price and Jeff Thomson. Contemporary sculptors often experiment with new technology and materials beyond the traditional bronze and stone.