Under-performing Dowse under fire

20:46, Oct 20 2014

The gloss is coming off Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum for its main funder, with several Hutt City councillors accusing it of lagging behind Porirua's popular and successful Pataka.

The Dowse came under fire this week at its annual report presentation to councillors about its costs, visitor numbers, exhibitions, attractiveness and design.

Hutt City Museums, which includes the Dowse and Petone Settlers Museum, cost the council $2 million last year, 2.6 per cent of the city's budget.

Funding had increased by $360,000 since 2010, yet visitor numbers were stagnant, finance and audit committee chairman Max Shierlaw said at the presentation.

Pataka, meanwhile, had fewer staff, less funding, and attracted 100,000 more visitors each year.

"Where is the value to ratepayers?" Shierlaw asked.

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Underfunded civic projects such as cycleways should take priority over the Dowse unless it proved its worth, he said.

"Some funding cutbacks are going to have to be made, and quite frankly I think this is one of them. Future increases for the Dowse need to be funded by revenue, rather than rates."

Councillor Chris Milne criticised the Dowse for taking more council money, while lowering its fees for venue hire.

"It's an unsustainable trend. Subsidies are growing, and user charges are falling."

Dowse director Courtney Johnston said Pataka's success was not typical.

She pointed to Wellington's City Gallery, which had 150,000 visitors last year, compared with the Dowse's 198,000.

"Pataka is an outstanding outlier, and I take my hat off to them, but I'm not ashamed of what we're doing," Johnston said.

Council community services general manager Matt Reid said the Dowse's extra funding covered higher staff salaries, the establishment of a community arts adviser, growing building maintenance and exhibition costs, and the Big Day Dowse event.

Councillor Tui Lewis said Pataka attracted visitors by making art visible from the neighbouring library, meeting rooms, and shop and cafe, while the Dowse's foyer was uninviting.

Johnston conceded the Dowse's foyer was "cold and confusing", and said a better design proved too expensive during the museum's $6m makeover between 2005 and 2007.

Lower Hutt Deputy Mayor David Bassett said councillors barely knew what was happening at the Dowse, and requested better communication, but Johnston countered that councillors seldom attended exhibition openings.

The council would be willing to boost funding to the Dowse if it could secure high-profile international exhibitions, Bassett said.

Johnston took over as director two years ago, and was still seeing out exhibitions planned by her predecessor, Cam McCracken. Her first exhibition, jewellery showcase Wunderruma, was picked up by Auckland and Otago museums - a notable compliment, she said.

She planned to improve the Petone Settlers Museum, which attracted just 11,637 visitors last year, due to having the same exhibition for five years, she said. Displays would change every six months in the future.

Successes for the Dowse this year included a programme to bring low-decile schoolchildren to the museum, and a 96 per cent resident satisfaction rate.

Pataka director Helen Kedgley said her museum's success was helped by quality exhibitions, its community hub design and engagement with residents, but she was reluctant to speculate on other galleries' shortcomings.

Wellington's museums worked collegially and served the region well together, which was something Auckland lacked, she said.

The Dominion Post