Beginnings: the establishment of the Pakuranga Community and Cultural Centre and the Fisher Gallery

An early goal of the new Pakuranga Arts Society was to establish a purpose-built community arts centre, New Zealand’s first. Led by artist and patron Iris Fisher and interior designer Nanette Cameron, the society vigorously raised funds to help establish the centre. Inspired by feminist self-organising principles, the Pakuranga Society’s vision was to create a cultural hub for the new suburb that could provide facilities for arts groups and offer classes over a wide range of craft and art activities. The centre was also intended to provide an exhibition space introducing topical critical discussion into the cultural vacuum.  

The society decided municipal funding would be needed for this large-scale project, so in May 1970 a delegation from the Pakuranga Arts Society led by Andrew Venter visited the Manukau City Council. They were successful in securing partial funding for the centre from the council and private funders. Highly organised craft festivals, fêtes and white elephant stalls provided the balance of funds and also engendered community participation and awareness for the proposed facility. The society’s volunteers then facilitated the design, building and management of the new centre.  

The Pakuranga Arts Centre opened on 22 March 1975. Several busy and productive years followed, with the centre operating at full capacity. Wide ranges of activities were supported, including painting, weaving, pottery, music appreciation, interior design and dancing. But despite being purpose-built for art and other cultural activities, the Pakuranga Cultural and Community Centre (as it was renamed in 1976) proved unable to support challenging exhibitions mounted by contemporary artists. During a Michael Illingworth exhibition in 1976, the society’s then president Geoff Mason exercised discretion on behalf of visitors and users of the centre by removing two paintings containing ‘offensive nudity’.  

The only regular exhibition space was the centre’s foyer, notwithstanding temporary use of the building’s auditorium. Varied public uses of the foyer area necessitated the development of a new exhibition space, prompting the Pakuranga Arts Society to initiate plans for a dedicated art gallery. Their vision was for a space that was more than a gallery in the traditional museological model. The society communicated their aspirations for a living community art gallery that would include and involve many cultural forms and activities. In this initiative the society encountered more resistance – although consent, a site and significant funding were granted by the council in July 1977, Pakuranga would wait another seven years to inaugurate the Fisher Gallery.  

The Drop-in Society – a group that used the arts centre to organise youth activities – opposed the proposed gallery. They argued that the community lacked many other important facilities, especially for the area’s teenage population. The arts society faced legal challenges, petitions, antipathetic newspaper editorials and a youth protest rally – these complaints ultimately arrived at the High Court. The social climate of the late 1970s leaned towards arguments of cultural elitism and questioned state funding of the arts on this basis. The QEII Arts Council’s Art Participation Survey of 1979 vigorously questioned the importance of arts activities within the wider context of leisure in New Zealand, finding that ‘culture is sometimes considered the esoteric interest of a small elite, who are not only usually privileged to begin with, but also manage to get the state to subsidise their chosen activities’.  

The legal challenge by the Drop-in Society was finally defeated in September 1981 in the Court of Appeal. The arts society had won the right to use their funding and site to build the first suburban art gallery in Australasia. Michael Volkering, chairman of the QEII Arts Council, opened the Fisher Gallery on 23 March 1984.  

The above text is an excerpt from the essay Judy brings everyone to the table by Paula Booker, from the exhibition catalogue Judy Darragh: Arts Society, published by Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts and Clouds Publishing (2006) with support from The University of Auckland and the Manukau School of Visual Arts. It draws on material from A History of the Pakuranga Arts Society 1969-1984, researched and written by Moyra Elliott.

Te Tuhi: an amalgamation

It was Beverley Smaill, together with new director Candy Elsmore, who generated the idea to amalgamate the Pakuranga Community and Cultural Centre with the Fisher Gallery. In November 2000 the Pakuranga Arts and Cultural Trust was incorporated to carry out this visionary plan.

The Fisher Gallery was then owned by the Pakuranga Gallery Trust, and the Pakuranga Community and Cultural Centre by the Manukau City Council. Both buildings stood on Ti Rakau Park, which was owned by the Manukau City Council. The council subsequently gifted the Pakuranga Community and Cultural Centre to the Pakuranga Arts and Cultural Trust, who were also able to buy the Fisher Gallery. 

Jasmax Architects were engaged to develop a concept to join the two buildings. Ivan Mercep, the architect of the Fisher Gallery, returned to take part in this process. The amalgamation featured a simple foyer stretched between the gallery and the centre connecting the two organisations that were so closely ideologically and geographically linked . Included in the design was improved access with covered walkways, a layby at the front to allow bus access, a reception area, shop, open gallery space, café and research library. The existing galleries were upgraded, a new one created and the sculpture courtyard fully enclosed. The building complex was officially opened under the name ‘te tuhi – the mark’ on 19 May 2001 with dawn and afternoon events. At the morning ceremony, a wātea throughout the building took place, finishing with a breakfast. In the afternoon the centre was opened by His Worship the mayor of Manukau City Sir Barry Curtis, the Rt. Hon. Judith Tizard, Mr Stephen Fisher, and Ms Carolynn Whiteman. Te Roopu Awhina, the young Ngai Tai cultural group, sang at the opening, which was coordinated by Pita Turei of Ngai Tai iwi. The building was judged winner of the Creative Spaces Award for Arts Facility Developments in 2001. 

Our name

The name Te Tuhi was gifted by local tangata whenua, Ngāi Tai. This is in reference to the ancestor Manawatere, a great explorer who signalled his arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand by making his tuhi, or mark, on a pōhutukawa tree using karamea, a red ochre. To this day, a large pōhutukawa at Cockle Bay in Howick is called ‘Te Tuhi a Manawatere’ by Ngāi Tai. In keeping with the story of Te Tuhi o Manawatere, at the centre’s opening Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki iwi presented a pōhutukawa log, carved with Manawatere’s tuhi, as well as two pōhutukawa trees cultivated from seeds from the tree on which Manawatere left his tuhi. In 2007, the name was changed to Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, and in 2013 simplified further, to Te Tuhi.

On 9 June 2012 a ceremony was held to formally declare the names of the two main galleries within Te Tuhi: the Iris Fisher Gallery and the Bev Smaill Gallery. This was an opportunity to recognise the efforts of two passionate and ambitious leaders for their years of volunteer work in support of Te Tuhi.

Current focus

From 2006 the exhibition model changed, in line with best practice in curated programmes from national and international contemporary art galleries. The annual number of exhibitions decreased, in favour of longer timeframes, and the focus turned toward engaging artists with national and international profile. Today, Te Tuhi’s primary focus remains on commissioning work, by offering stimulating contexts for artists to respond to and work within. The emphasis remains on artistic process and practice, always placing the artist at the core of the programme. This value is seen as integral to, and interconnected with developing audiences, and the sector as a whole. Read more about Te Tuhi’s exhibition programme here.

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