News | 19 September 2023
Share on social

Forty years of public art in the capital

From Len Lye’s water whirler, to the Zephyrometer (orange needle) on Cobham drive, to the silver fern ball in Te Ngākau square – public art has become a key part of Wellington’s identity. But where did these works come from?

Silver fern ball hanging above a square.
Ferns by Neil Dawson in Te Ngākau Civic Square.

Working behind the scenes in the city is the Wellington Sculpture Trust, who have been providing contemporary public art to the city for 40 years. 

Over this time the Trust has installed 30 permanent works within the city centre including the Botanic Garden ki Paekākā, the waterfront, and along Cobham Drive.

On top of that, there have been ten temporary sculptures  eight on the four plinths between the waterfront and Te Papa, the temporary commissioning and installation of Quasi on top of the City Gallery in 2021, and HALO, a virtual sculpture installed as recently as this month to celebrate the Trust’s 40th birthday.

It’s fair to say that the city’s art scene has been heavily influenced by the work of the Trust.

Albatross sculpture at Whairepo Lagoon.
Albatross by Tanya Ashken by Whairepo Lagoon.

The Trust started with a passionate group of people who wanted to raise money for a work by Tanya Ashken – now known as ‘Albatross’, an iconic sculpture by Whairepo Lagoon.

Since then, they have been empowering the creative sector to contribute to the culture of Wellington through unique sculptures.

Wellington Sculpture Trust Chair Sue Elliott has seen the city’s collection grow and adapt to the changes in technologies and our society over the past 20 years in her role as first a trustee and then chair for the past 10.

“I joined the Trust in 2002 and became chair in 2013. In that time, I’ve seen the technological changes that impact fabrication and the cultural changes that offer up new responses by artists to sites and our story telling. Public works of art have always reflected the society of the time. 

Water Whirler on the Wellington waterfront.
Len Lye's Water Whirler. Wellington waterfront.

“An example of this is Len Lye’s water whirler – when he first designed that work, the technology didn’t exist to create it in the real world. Even now it is on the edge of what is possible. Driven by computers, motors and fibres that can make the work swivel and rotate as well as pump water – technology plays a huge part in what is possible!”

Sue says that the art goes beyond the permanent works they began with. In 2013 they introduced an event called ‘PARKing day’ which is held every year, in partnership with Wellington City Council. 

Art installation inside a carpark on the side of the road.
PARKing day on Cuba Street.

“Every year we take over 30 car parks in Cuba Street for an eight-hour period. This gives Wellingtonians the opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of activities and creative installations. Over the 10 years it’s been running, hundreds of individuals and organisations have taken up the challenge to add vibrancy to the precinct.”

While the art has become part of the landscape of the city, Sue says it’s not always easy. 

“We have always been quite staunch about being an independent, not-for-profit charitable trust. We get some funding from Council, and cap the public money that goes into any work at 20 percent, so we then go out and raise the other 80 percent." 

Big orange needle by Cobham Drive.
Zephyrometer by Phil Price at Cobham Drive.

This removes the concern about public money, but there is also the question of the value of public art to the city.

“The works are more than just sculptures dotted about our city, they tell our stories, speak to their sites, they are all site specific. What is rewarding is when people challenge a work when they first go in and then six months later they say they absolutely love the piece. An example of this is the Zephyrometer. When it was hit by lightning and damaged, the communities that didn’t want it there were pushing for us to fix it as soon as we could.”

With 40 years of wonderful work, the Trust is looking forward to the future for many more years to come, says Sue.

“We want Wellingtonians to feel proud of their space and continue to unlock histories, stories and experiences.”

Check out some of the works around the city.