TAURANGA (PHOTO: Dan Van Nistelrooy)

Tauranga, the Miami of New Zealand, needn’t be a cultural wasteland

New Zealand’s fifth biggest city is remarkably thin on culture, writes Rebecca Galloway, and it’s time to change that. Just like the real Miami.

Tauranga is a beach city marked by an ever-expanding tidemark of homes under construction. Its low-rise downtown is studded by colourful shops with names like Tres Chic! and Fancy That, proving that not only can the local purveyors help you with any manner of bedazzled tchotchkes, they have also mastered the art of non-sequiturs and hackneyed puns. The sheer array of trinkets and knick-knacks to be found in the downtown Tauranga area is bewildering. Are you after a giant leopard-print high heel-shaped plush chair? An amethyst and copper wire bonsai tree? No flippin’ problem dollface, Tauranga’s got you covered.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Tauranga has more cargo shorts per capita than just about anywhere else on earth.

I grew up there; by the time I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to leave. I wanted to live somewhere cold and foreign, somewhere that had a cultural life beyond the local speech and drama competitions at Baycourt or the Miss Mount Maunganui pageant over at the soundshell.

Since I left 18 years ago, people (especially my mother) have been at pains to tell me how much things have changed. “There’s a gallery now!” they gush. “Look, the arts fest is bringing all sorts of shows to the theatre now, it’s not just David Strassman these days.” And, by golly, they seemed to be right. There was something happening in Tauranga, my formerly soporific home town.

Although I live overseas now, I still keep up with the news in Tauranga, tangentially at least. A while back I saw that Tauranga was finally planning to build a museum and the powers that be were considering where and how such a thing would be done. It was well overdue. In my absence, Tauranga had swelled into a grunty economic behemoth, like the Incredible Hulk pumped up on a heady mix of anger, boredom, broad vowels, boy racer cars and warm cans of V.

A by-product of this economic growth, together with the spillover of home-buyers pushed from the sweaty armpit of Auckland’s suburbs, was that Tauranga had successfully leap-frogged both Dunedin and Napier-Hastings in the population stakes, becoming New Zealand’s fifth-largest city.

Certainly, Tauranga’s size alone seems to warrant a museum. Most of the local news commentary leans on this fact as a kind of provincial Keeping up with the Joneses. “Whakatane is getting a museum!” people said. “Should we maybe think about getting one too?”

Often overlooked in all of this regional one-upmanship and number-crunching are a couple of key points.

The first is that Tauranga has a rich and tangled history dating back to about the 12th century. Probably one of the most dramatic moments was the famous Battle of Gate Pā in 1864, in which 1,600 British invaders suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of about 230 Māori, mostly from Ngāi Te Rangi. Isn’t that nuts? Almost no one knows those stories. Not many tell them these days, that’s for sure.

And perhaps even more importantly, Tauranga has an existing heritage collection without a home; a collection of about 30,000 objects, artefacts, photographs and taonga that have been languishing in storage since 1998.

So okay. Time for a museum right? But then the Tauranga City Council unwisely decided to hold a referendum to gauge the public appetite for such a thing. I say “unwisely” because we all know that referendums are generally a horrible idea. Look at Brexit. Look at Boaty McBoatface. The NZ flag debacle. All referendums. Crowds are bad at making decisions, but the council clearly hadn’t cottoned on.

The results of Tauranga’s museum referendum came in early this month. They were fairly decisive and they point to one not particularly earth shattering conclusion (at least for me): no one really gives that much of a shit about cultural heritage in the Bay. Certainly not enough to pay for it. Officials estimated that a Tauranga ratepayer with a $500,000 property would pay about $69 a year, or $1.30 a week, to build and run this hypothetical museum. Still no dice. About 60% of voters said, for one reason or another, that they didn’t want a museum in their city.

A commenter, ‘Brian’ on Stuff summed up the general sentiment nicely: “If I wanted museums, flash trendy cafes and other such things I would’ve moved to Wellington.”

‘Too_much’ managed to be even more pithy and direct: “Going to a museum is like watching paint dry.”

Fair enough. Or is it? 

Pérez Art Museum Miami (PHOTO: Phillip Pessar)

Let’s for a minute consider the actual Miami, not its Kiwi counterpart. Once upon a time, Miami (or at least non-Latino Miami) was a cultural wasteland, a place where people went to sit on a beach or retire in leathery-skinned bliss under the rays of the Floridian sunshine. But, in the space of one generation, Miami transformed itself into a cultural hotspot and a huge magnet for international arts tourism.

For some strange reason, the 80s saw an incredible uptick in cultural activity that shuddered through the city like a steam engine. Over the course of about a decade or so, Miami saw the launch of Miami City Ballet, the National Young Arts Foundation, New World Symphony, New World School of the Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Miami Book Fair, International Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami International Film Festival and the Rhythm Foundation. In the years that followed, the International Hispanic Theater Festival began to showcase Latin American culture, and Art Basel Miami now draws huge crowds every December. Once a commonly-derided port city with nice weather but nothing much to do, Miami now has a thrumming nightlife that wraps itself around all of these cultural events like Gladwrap around a bowl of fruit salad.

What changed, you might ask, aside from the rise of commercial air-conditioning? Excellent question. A little digging reveals that a coalition of arts visionaries, civic leaders, local businesses and patrons focused their collective energies around arts initiatives, galvanising key influencers across the public and private sectors to plant the seeds of a thriving arts ecosystem. There was nothing accidental about it. And, crucially to this particular debate, this rejuvenation came at a time when Miami was faced with high crime, infrastructure problems, rising costs of living and any other excuse you can think of for ignoring the arts.

Here’s another interesting thing to chew on. Part of what made this all possible was Miami’s youthful personality; its can-do, anything-goes approach; its dearth of cultural conventions and institutions; and its near-constant stream of newcomers looking to invent or reinvent themselves. Sound like any other cities you know?

Honestlyhonestlythe same thing could happen in Tauranga with just a bit more imagination, leadership and guts.

But I know… baby steps, baby steps. Here’s a starter suggestion: even if they can’t see the intrinsic worth of a museum, Tauranga City Council should think about gathering some stronger data about the economic pull of cultural events and use it to guide their decision-making, instead of simply choosing the path of least resistance.

Come on, Tauranga. As my mum would say, get your A into G!


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