He toi whakairo, he mana tangata | Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity

New Zealand’s 20th Century Public Art is at risk

Many of Aotearoa’s most talented 20th Century artists turned their attention to enriching public space, often hand-in-hand with leading architects. As a result, some of the largest and most ambitious artworks in the country were placed in publicly-accessible sites throughout urban and regional centres.

Sadly, many of these works have now been destroyed, covered over, or simply lost. But many remain, undocumented and at risk due to a lack of public knowledge of their significance and cultural value.

Since around the 1990s, councils throughout New Zealand have been developing public art policies, collections, and maintenance procedures to care for their civic art treasures. Research into the role of public art, both internationally and in Aotearoa, has reinforced these approaches demonstrating that public art can deliver multiple social, economic, cultural and health benefits. This bodes well for public artworks being produced today, but what about works developed before these policies came about: those that have slipped through the gaps?

Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand has been established to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders have knowledge of, and access to, these cultural treasures. Based at Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts, Massey University Wellington, this research initiative seeks to find, document, and protect what remains of Aotearoa’s public art heritage.

What is “Public Space”?

For the purposes of this initiative, public space is defined as a physical site (other than galleries and museums) that fits one or more of the following criteria. It is:

  • Publicly accessible (could include de facto public spaces i.e. hospitals, schools & universities, churches, shopping malls, and private building foyers where public access is a key factor) and/or;
  • Visible to the public (i.e. part of the landscape, owned in the imagination of the public) and/or;
  • Publicly owned

What is “Public Art”?

For an artwork to be considered “public art” it must fit all three of the following criteria:

  • It was made intentionally as art
  • It was, or is, located in public space (as defined above)
  • It was commissioned by a public body, OR for public good, OR created/acquired with the intention that it would be installed in a specific public site

The scale, mobility and site specificity of a work will also be a consideration factor.

Our Background

From June 2015-July 2017, Toi Rauwharangi College of Creative Arts at Massey University ran a special project to mark its 130th anniversary: the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search & Recovery Project. Led by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith and Sue Elliott, this project sought to research, catalogue and documented the status of each of Taylor’s major murals and building decorations pursuing, where possible, the reinstatement and ongoing protection of neglected works. The results of this research are documented in the book Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

Despite the project’s focus on Taylor, numerous members of the public were inspired to come forward with information on other works of art in New Zealand that were in need of similar attention. In order to capture this information, Holloway-Smith and Elliott began the “New Zealand Mural Heritage Register”, a basic spreadsheet capturing any information that they were given including names, sites, artist, and other details. The public’s unsolicited contributions to the register meant that, without trying, the list grew to over 200 works.

The removal of several significant works from the Post-War period, and publicity around this in 2016, prompted the then Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage to ask her Ministry to investigate the need for a register to protect public artworks.

Joining forces, MCH and MUCoCA undertook consultation with interested parties to determine the most appropriate way to protect the most significant works for posterity; where responsibility for this protection might lie; and what definitions and parameters we might apply. The overwhelming conclusion of the consultation was that a register of public works throughout New Zealand was necessary.

In response to this need, the Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand project was formed. We are currently focused on establishing a New Zealand Public Art Heritage Register, with a longer-term vision to ultimately work towards protecting public artworks of national significance, and developing best practice in terms of contracting, commissioning, documenting, maintaining, and de-commissioning these works.


Phase One of this project operated from 2018-2020 as a partnership between Toi Rauwharangi College of Creative Arts at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage. This phase saw the two parties working together to further scope the project and grow the New Zealand Public Art Heritage Register with entries from Territorial and Local Authorities. In 2020 this partnership concluded, coinciding with the shift of the project to a new phase.

Phase Two of the project involves conducting an audit of all submitted entries and undertaking site visits to relevant works. A set of between 50-100 works will then be compiled for assessment by an expert advisory panel, who will categorize them based on national, regional, and local significance.

Phase Three of this project will seek to increase public awareness of Aotearoa’s 20th Century Public Art Heritage. The first set of assessed and categorized works will be announced and listed on http://publicart.nz. Alongside this, Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand will work with Heritage New Zealand to gain heritage listing for works of national significance. We will also liaise with councils to seek heritage listing for works at a regional level. We will also seek to have plaques installed near unlabeled works of significance to ensure that local audiences are suitably informed.

The Aotearoa Public Art Forum

Throughout the course of our research so far, we have heard from a number of people working in public art-related fields who are interested in the idea of establishing a national Public Art Forum. Such a forum would become a space for peer support, the sharing of experiences and best-practice resources, and discussion of contemporary issues in the public art field.

As a result, we are planning to establish the Aotearoa Public Art Forum. To stay informed of developments, please sign up to our mailing list.


What public artworks will you be seeking to protect?

While we are aware that the quantity of New Zealand’s public artworks is constantly expanding, our initial focus will be on 20th Century public art as this is currently the most at-risk category of public art in Aotearoa New Zealand.