News | 14 December 2023
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A not so brief history of City Gallery Wellington

Te Whare Toi – City Gallery Wellington sits at the heart of Te Ngākau Civic Square which is currently undergoing a major transformation. But the gallery hasn't always called Civic Square its home and has gone through several transformations of its own over the last 43 years.

The old City Gallery building on Victoria Street in the 1980s with a retro car parked outfront.
The first City Gallery location on Victoria Street. Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington

City Gallery Wellington as we know it today opened its doors in 1993, but the institution has actually been running since 1980. It started with humble beginnings in a small, two-story building at 65 Victoria Street. The exhibition space was 265 square metres, had only three full-time staff and shows ran every 4-6 weeks.  

A black and white photo of the old City Gallery building on Victoria Street.
The first City Gallery Wellington building on Victoria Street. Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington

Prior to this, Wellington boasted both the National Art Gallery and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, but it had never had a gallery in its own right. After years of discussion with the art community, the Council recognised that the city needed its own public art gallery that would be accessible for everyone, from "city workers" to the "casual viewer". This was the first time that the Council had any direct involvement with what was then called the “graphic arts.”  

When the gallery officially opened, Wellington Mayor at the time Michael Fowler said that “the bringing together of the Council and our artists can only be a good thing for the city.” 

A black and white photo of the first ever exhibition at City Gallery which features plinths with sculptures and pictures on the walls.
The first ever exhibition at the gallery titled "Opening". Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington

While the gallery was a great first step, it wasn’t without its challenges. There was no public toilet or a fridge, and international artists who travelled to Wellington for residencies had to work from places like Eastbourne because there were no studio spaces.

The old City Gallery building on Victoria Street with very retro font signage on the frontage.
The City Gallery Wellington hosting an exhibition on holography in 1988. Wellington City Council Archives, 00557-533-7

Despite this, the gallery hosted hundreds of exhibitions from local legends like Robyn Kahukiwa, Shona Rapira Davies and Robin White, to international stars like David Hockney. You can see a full list of exhibitions that the gallery has held dating right back to 1980 on their website.

A series of bold paintings by Robyn Kahukiwa hanging in City Gallery.
Robyn Kahukiwa - He Tātai Whētu ki te Rangi Mau Tonu, he Tātai Tangata ki te Whenua Ngaro Noa Ngaro Noa, 1987-88. Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington

Over time, it became clear that the gallery had outgrown the two-floor exhibition space. The value of contemporary visual arts had also become more apparent, especially in a city that has such a high percentage of people employed in the arts per capita. More funding was allocated to the gallery, more staff were hired, and the hunt began for a new permanent home.  

In 1989, the gallery moved into the old Post Office shed on Chews Lane where it would live for four years before moving into the old city library building in Civic Square in 1993.

A photo of the outside of the temporary City Gallery building on Chews Lane.
The temporary City Gallery location on Chews Lane in 1989. Wellington City Libraries - 50011-131

Mayor Michael Fowler noted the significance of the move to Te Ngākau Civic Square.

“The establishment of the Gallery in the central city is an important event; its establishment in the civic centre is even more significant. Here in the heart of the city and adjacent to the harbour, it will be complimented by the Town Hall, the foci of great cultural and conference gatherings, the various departments of the Public Library, the Planetarium, the central city parks, while all the areas around it are undergoing a massive renaissance—the rebuilding of the commercial centre of this capital city.”

But before the gallery could move into its new home, the art deco library building (which was built in 1940) had to be renovated and made fit for its new purpose. The architect responsible for the conversion was Stuart Gardyne. Stuart is a director of local architecture studio Architecture + which has also produced iconic buildings like Te Wharewaka and Pataka art gallery in Porirua. 

The outside of City Gallery under renovation with a big sign of Vicent Van Gogh wearing a hard hat.
The old City Library being converted into the new City Gallery Wellington. Wellington City Council Archives, 00557-683-15

The building was ready to reopen in 1993 which coincided with New Zealand’s Suffrage Centennial. To mark the occasion, City Gallery Wellington presented four shows by women artists - Alter/Image, Rosemarie Trockel, Te Whare Puanga, and Jacqueline Fraser’s project He Tohu: The New Zealand Room. The shows explored feminism, representation, gender and identity and was described as “recognisably postmodern.” 

An exhibition at City Gallery featuring a large furry hanging in the centre and lots of photographs and pictures displayed on the walls.
The first exhibition in the new building in 1993 titled Alter/Image. Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington

Today, City Gallery Wellington is a dynamic cultural presence in our city, and no visit to the capital is complete without a wander through. As the website states, it “is a venue for the research, display and debate about modern and contemporary visual art.” The gallery has hosted major exhibitions from local and international artists with Hilma af Klint, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Annie Leibovitz and Bill Hammond to name a few. 

In 2009, world renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama took over the gallery with her dots and mind bending infinity installations. Pictured below are people queuing to experience the exhibition.

A long line of people queing to get into City Gallery Wellington which is covered in large colourful dots.
Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years, 2009. Image supplied by City Gallery Wellington.

The gallery also hosts regular artists talks, family days, tours, film screenings and their popular Tuatara Open Late events where the whole community is welcome to explore the gallery after dark. Check out what events are coming up at the gallery on their website.

Work is underway to transform Wellington, including Te Ngākau Civic Square, where we’re strengthening and modernising Te Matapihi Central Library so it’s fit for the future.

While this construction work is underway, City Gallery Wellington has changed its week-day hours to 4pm-7.30pm Monday-Friday, and 10am-5pm on weekends.

Check out our other interesting articles as part of our City Building series. Or, find out more about Positively Pōneke on our website.