Saving Aotearoa’s Public Art Heritage

A Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts Research Initiative has been awarded $300,000 by Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage through the Te Tahua Āki Auahatanga Innovation Fund. Ka rawe!

Spearheaded by Dr Bronwyn Holloway-Smith and Sue Elliott, Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand has been established to find, document, protect, and communicate the significance of Aotearoa’s twentieth-century public art to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders have knowledge of, and access to, these cultural treasures. Bronwyn graduated from Massey with a BFA and PhD Fine Arts and has the role of Senior Advisor, Strategic Projects at CoCA. Sue is Senior Advisor, Strategic Partnerships at CoCA.

The newly secured grant from MCH will enable the project to undertake a major expansion of its website and its underlying database over the next two years, to establish the Aotearoa Public Art Forum to develop best-practice guidance, resources, and a peer support network for those involved in public art, and to continue its work finding, documenting, protecting, and communicating the significance of Aotearoa’s twentieth-century public art.


In the twentieth century, many of Aotearoa’s most talented artists turned their attention to enriching public space, often hand in hand with leading architects. As a result, some of the largest and most ambitious artworks in the country were placed in publicly accessible sites throughout urban and regional centers. Sadly, many of these works have now been destroyed, covered over, or simply lost. But many more remain, undocumented and at risk due to a lack of public knowledge of their significance and cultural value. Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand is on a mission to fix this problem.

The initiative emerged out of the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search & Recovery Project, which resulted in the publication of 'Wanted: The Search for the Modernist' Murals of E. Mervyn (Massey Press, 2018), a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Further outcomes of this project include the reinstallation in public space of Taylor’s previously lost mural ‘Te Ika-a-Maui' at Takapuna Library, and the uncovering of another mural that had been hidden behind a wall, ‘Early Settlers’, in the former Masterton Post Office.

While researching this area, numerous members of the public approached the team with information on other twentieth-century New Zealand public artworks that had been overlooked, neglected, and lost, which they began to record. The quantity of these suggestions quickly made it apparent that the scale of the problem was significant, and more comprehensive research was required to establish its full scale.

The register was subsequently expanded by incorporating public art records obtained from territorial and local authorities (where they existed). In addition to this, Dr Holloway-Smith was invited by Artspace Aotearoa to conduct in-depth research into the public artworks of Guy Ngan, resulting in the identification of nearly forty works throughout Aotearoa. Sue Elliott also conducted research around the work ‘Forest In The Sun’ by textile artist and weaver Joan Calvert and Guy Ngan, which was commissioned for the main foyer of the Executive Suite of the Beehive. This resulted in an agreement between Parliament and Te Papa (facilitated by Sue Elliott) to reinstall the work in its intended location within the Beehive foyer.

Current focus

This year, the team has been busy auditing, documenting, and expanding the list of works on the register, and meeting with a range of stakeholders working in various fields connected with the public art sector. A series of site visits have been undertaken around the country, from Bluff to Cape Reinga, to document and verify details of existing works. Check the project’s Instagram account to see images of some of the works seen on these trips: @publicartnz.

Further expansion of the register is ongoing and involves recording and following up on new leads and obtaining records of public works in regional hospitals, universities, polytechs, banks, schools, churches, government departments, RSAs, and other sites that have been identified as possible locations for public artworks.

Since beginning these site visits, more than 200 additional works have been identified. There are currently over 1,000 works listed on the register (including missing, hidden, lost, and destroyed works).

Protecting works of national significance

Currently, the project team is assembling an expert advisory panel to assess a first set of works from the register for their significance. The panel is to be made up of a range of individuals with relevant expertise who reflect the diversity of Aotearoa New Zealand, and will operate within the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Works of national significance works will then be taken forward to Heritage New Zealand in 2022.


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