Ralph Hotere mural worth $3m stored by Hamilton council for years

4:29 pm on 30 March 2021

A $3 million Ralph Hotere mural owned by Hamilton City Council has been in storage for more than three years because there is no public space big enough to hang it.

An artist's impression of what Ralph Hotere's Founders Theatre mural will look like in the new Waikato Regional Theatre.

An artist's impression of what Ralph Hotere's Founders Theatre mural will look like in the new Waikato Regional Theatre. Photo: Supplied / Momentum Waikato

The 8.5m wide by 5m high mural was created for and housed in the foyer of the Founders Theatre in Hamilton until the theatre was closed over safety concerns in 2016.

The council said the mural by the acclaimed Māori artist was too big to display elsewhere and was being stored in a temperature-controlled and secure location in Hamilton.

It will be resurrected for display inside the unbuilt Waikato Regional Theatre, due to open in 2023.

The mural's value was assessed last year at $3.15m for insurance purposes, which is the latest estimate for the work by Hotere, who died in 2013.

The council owns another 30 pieces of work by Hotere together valued at $1.65m, as part of its public art collection, including some of the original concept drawings for the mural.

The mural was commissioned in 1973 and jointly funded by Hamilton City Council and the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, costing a meagre $3000.

The acquisition was originally the result of a two-stage competition organised by the city and arts councils.

Hotere was one of five notable finalists including Colin McCahon, Quentin MacFarlane, Para Matchitt and Ray Thorburn, who each presented designs for the western wall of the Founders Theatre before Hotere won.

The theatre first opened in 1962 but was closed in 2016 because of concerns over its stage house fly system, fire protection and the fact it was earthquake-prone, with restoration estimated at between $12m and $20m.

Initially, the mural remained inside the closed theatre while a removal and storage plan was developed. It has been stored in purpose-built crates since November 2017.

The decision to store the artwork was made by Hamilton City Council venues, tourism, and major events general manager Sean Murray, who said Waikato Museum staff investigated other potential public display locations.

"Unfortunately, there was no public space considered suitable to display the work," Murray said.

He said at the time of storage the Waikato Regional Theatre project had been confirmed and had been identified as an appropriate future site for the mural.

"The mural will be back on display when the new Waikato Regional Theatre opens. The plan is to locate it in the theatre's main foyer, which will be a public area."

The new theatre's construction is to be managed by Momentum Waikato for the community with a financial contribution from the city council.

"It [the mural] will be provided on a permanent loan basis as a way of celebrating the important legacy of Founders Theatre in the city's new premier arts space," Murray said.

Dunedin School of Art art history and theory lecturer Ed Hanfling said the mural, made of lacquer paint on hardboard panels, was a "very fine example of Hotere's work".

Dr Hanfling, a former Wintec School of Media Arts lecturer who wrote about the mural for a guide to Hamilton public art, said he was aware the piece was in storage.

"I would think that's about all that can be done for the time being. One hopes that the new theatre is designed specifically with the mural in mind, so that it becomes an integral part of the new building, as it was to the old."

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said she believed it was most important the artwork was "properly taken care of" and that it takes its place in the new theatre.

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