Len Lye visitor numbers plummet after door charge introduced

7:12 pm on 5 August 2019

Visitor numbers at the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth has more than halved a year after a controversial door charge was introduced for out-of-towners.

Cambridge visitors at Len Lye Centre. Man is Dan Chapman

Visitors from Cambridge said they were happy to pay. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Only 47,000 people visited the gallery in the past year - down from 97,000 a year ago. That's also 69,000 short of its visitor target of 116,000.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom went against convention and used his casting vote to pass a motion introducing a $15 charge for out-of-town visitors to the gallery aged 16 and above.

The $12 million centre - dedicated to the pioneering New Zealand filmmaker and kinetic artist - was built with private money, but Mr Holdom argued ratepayers were sick of picking up the $4.3 million annual tab for its operating costs.

But only 17,000 out-of-town visitors stumped up the $15 last year - raking in just $233,000 to offset those running costs.

Neil Holdom.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Holdom, however, had no regrets.

"I came into this role three years ago and we had a fantastic gallery that needed additional artworks in it.

"We are slowly improving the quality of what's inside it, we have fantastic gallery directors and we have a door charge for people from out of town while the people of New Plymouth are funding $4.3 million a year to run the facility.

"I think we're doing a really good job."

Mr Holdom said out-of-region visitor numbers were steady and he was willing to cut a deal for others in wider Taranaki.

"The gallery numbers overall are down and the indications I've had is it's people from within Taranaki but not in New Plymouth district, i.e. Stratford and South Taranaki districts.

"And look if Stratford and South Taranaki districts want to come on board as a funding partner I'm sure we can come up with a deal to allow their people to come in either at a discount or no charge."

Mr Holdom said when he and his family travelled they expected to pay to visit attractions, and he thought visitors to New Plymouth would be happy to do the same at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre.

Len Lye Foundation trustee John Matthews

Len Lye Foundation trustee John Matthews Photo: RNZ/ Robin Martin

Len Lye Foundation trustee and personal friend of the artist John Matthews said the drop in visitor numbers was entirely predictable.

"It's part of our New Zealand's culture. You go to American museums including art galleries as we call them and you expect to pay, but in New Zealand the culture is different from that.

"Kiwis like to have open access and not to have to pay and that's the way it is."

Mr Matthews said the solution was straightforward.

"It's pretty easy really you change the rules and council's got to get its head around that.

"If they want a lot of people there, which I think is the mode of success, then there needs to be open access or alternatively open access of certain days or certain evenings. There's all those kinds of tricks that occur around the country."

Mr Matthews said Lye honed his thinking in public libraries and galleries and had always intended his works - which he gifted to New Plymouth - free to experience.

At the gallery, Cambridge visitor Dan Chapman said he was happy enough to pay.

"It's something worth looking at and somebody's got to pay for it I guess and I don't go to a lot of art galleries any way so it's not like I'm going to spend $100 a month going to art galleries. It is what it is I guess."

New Plymouth residents Steve Wright and son Zac visit at Len Lye Centre.

Steve Wright with his son Zac. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

But New Plymouth resident Steve Wright who was wandering through with his pre-schooler Zac, reckoned the door charge was a backward step.

"It seems to have people off. I really liked it when it was free. It's a bit of a hassle to bring proof of address."

Mr Wright said the door charge also made it awkward when considering bringing visitors to the Len Lye Centre.

"$15 is an awful lot. If it was just a gold coin or $5 I think people would just be happy to pay they wouldn't worry about it."

Len Lye Centre's new directors Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh, who started work in March, declined to comment.

In a statement, New Plymouth District Council recreation and culture manager Teresa Turner said a review of the full year of the admissions data was now underway.

Ms Turner said once this was complete it would be up to the elected members to decide whether to make any changes to the charging regime or overall visitor targets.

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