23 Jun 2015

Heritage gallery's $12m makeover begins

7:11 pm on 23 June 2015

Work has started on a $12 million overhaul of one of New Zealand's oldest public art galleries.

Julie Catchpole

Julie Catchpole Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

The Nelson Suter Art Gallery - The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu, which was opened in 1899, is being modernised as an exhibition and collection space. It is also being strengthened to meet new earthquake standards.

The gallery's director Julie Catchpole said the refurbishment plan was launched in 1999 but met several obstacles, and was revived about seven years ago.

It is expected to be finished by the end of next year.

The gallery was founded as a memorial to Andrew Burn Suter, Bishop of Nelson, from 1866 to 1891.

It opened on May 31, 1899. At the time, there were only two other art galleries in New Zealand.

Ms Catchpole became its acting director in 2007, and two years later she became director.

She said a fresh focus on earthquake strengthening of buildings, particularly heritage buildings, was only part of the reason for pushing ahead with the project which has received funding from local and central government, the Suter's trust board and by community fundraising and grants.

"It [seismic strength rating] was satisfactory but the fact it's a public space means it presents a higher risk situation.

"And we want the building to go on and serve the future as it's actually a wonderful exhibiting space. We want it to be the best it can possibly be."

Ms Catchpole said the beginnings of the redevelopment stretched back to the gallery's centennial in 1999 when the management and governance team then launched Project 2000.

It has since met various obstacles, but the project was revived in about 2008 in line with a governance re-structure.

The Nelson City Council, Bishop Suter Trust and the Government passed an act in parliament in 2008 that allowed it to proceed.

The gallery is one of three heritage arts spaces in Nelson, alongside the 1878 Theatre Royal which underwent a multi million-dollar renovation between 2008 and 2010, and the Nelson School of Music which has been closed for more than a year because of its high earthquake risk.

School of Music Trust chairman Roger Taylor said renovation plans had now been drawn up, major funders had committed their support and it was now over to the community to help reach a fundraising target of a total $6.4 million.

Construction work was expected to start before the end of year with a reopening set for late 2016, ready for the international Adam Chamber Music Festival in February 2017.

"The Theatre Royal has had the treatment ahead of us but these three buildings are unique in that they are still being used for the purpose they were designed for and all were developed in the late 19th Century," Ms Catchpole said.

At the same time a major revamp is about to begin on the city's other heritage institution, the Nelson School of Music. It has been closed for more than a year because of its high earthquake risk.