Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery to get multimillion dollar extension

After more than a decade of political wrangling and controversy Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery could be extended. 

Whanganui's artists, philanthropists and corporates and are being urged to support a multimillion dollar campaign to save one of the country’s oldest purpose-built art galleries and extend it to preserve a valuable art collection of national significance.

The gallery has been a hot topic for Whanganui's citizens and councilors for many years and, when he was mayor, Michael Laws and the district council were at loggerheads over the need for developing the gallery. Mr Laws ran a campaign to cancel plans for a gallery extension; resignations were called for, promised funding never eventuated and Bill Millbank, the gallery director, was sidelined.

This new $34 million proposal involves earthquake strengthening and restoration of the landmark 96-year-old Oamaru stone building.

The redevelopment encompasses a new extension sheathed in the same stone as the original with purpose-built storage facilities to the north of the existing gallery, together with additional exhibition space, education facilities and events space. This will enable more of the permanent collection to be seen than is possible.

The original Sarjeant Gallery will be earthquake strengthened through the use of base isolation. At the same time, the environment throughout the public and storage spaces will be air-condition-controlled to preserve collections on display and allow major touring exhibitions to come to the gallery.

The district, which was hard hit by devastating floods earlier this year, has already raised the bulk of nearly $10 million. This includes a $5 million contribution from the Whanganui District Council.  

The government has pledged a further $10 million in recognition of its national significance once the equivalent amount is raised from private sources.

Sarjeant Gallery Trust chairwoman Nicola Williams says the challenge in the next six months is to raise a further $5 million through grants, trusts, corporate and individual donations to trigger the government contribution.

Ms Williams says trustees are determined to get the project over the line.  Developed design drawings by Warren and Mahoney Architects are complete and unencumbered resource consents have been granted enabling construction to get underway once funding is secured. If all goes well, it is hoped the Sarjeant will reopen in time for its 100th anniversary in 2019.

“The Sarjeant has a Category 1 historic places rating and is a remarkable piece of neo-classical architecture. 

“The art collection spans 400-years and has some 8000 works, including old masters and contemporary pieces. It is possibly one of the country’s best kept secrets.” 

“We are charged with ensuring it is preserved and properly displayed for current and future generations of Whanganui residents, New Zealanders and international visitors.

 “Many individuals and families with links to Whanganui and the Sarjeant are living around New Zealand and overseas. Art lovers and corporate entities may also want to get involved,” Ms Williams says. 

“We need to make sure they all know what we are doing and give them an opportunity to contribute.”

As part of the first phase of redevelopment, the gallery and the collection have been relocated to temporary premises – Sarjeant on the Quay – near the Whanganui town centre.

Senior curator Greg Anderson says the massive task of relocating the multimillion dollar collection from the basement of the Sarjeant to the new temporary gallery resulted in the discovery of many more artworks.

He says in terms of national significance, the Sarjeant collection is unrivalled in regional New Zealand, with the works covering 400-years of art history. There are works by significant artists such as Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Pat Hanly, Charles Frederick Goldie, Gottfried Lindauer and Petrus Van Der Velden.

“With regard to its size and age it can be seen in the same context as the major municipal collections in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

“The collection provides a valuable record of Whanganui and New Zealand history and is culturally priceless.”

Mr Anderson says the collection and the Sarjeant are inextricably linked and restoring the building to its former grandeur and adding a new wing for storage and display purposes  is befitting of such an important collection.

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