Crucial council vote on Len Lye project

The Len Lye Centre
The Len Lye Centre

The first director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery has begged the council not to continue with the planned Len Lye Centre.

As tonight's crunch New Plymouth District Council meeting to decide the centre's future gets underway, John Maynard has criticised  both the design and financing of the council's planned centre, and urged them to send the project back to the drawing board.

In his written submission, he called the centre's design ''dull, pompous and self important'' and said it was a ''fantasy of overvalued local development effects, over exaggerated cultural benefits and underestimated costs.''

He said he had not spoken up publicly until now because he never believed it would actually be built.

But before the meeting, NPDC chief executive Barbara McKerrow said the submission did not reflect the view of the current Len Lye Foundation or the Govett Brewster Art Gallery.

As well as being the foundation director of the Govett- Brewster Art Gallery, Mr Maynard was the director of the Len Lye Foundation for a decade and a trustee of the Govett-Brewster Foundation since it began.

He also knew Monica Brewster, Len Lye, Ann Lye and knew and worked with current Len Lye Foundation chairman John Matthews.

He is now a film producer in Sydney.

Mr Maynard said he supported a Len Lye Centre - just not the one the council has had designed.

''I urge you to apply common sense to the problem - send the Len Lye Centre back to the drawing board, incorporate the gallery extension and insist that the design complies with the architectural brief and the budget.''

''All I can envisage is a poor building not suitable for its primary purpose honouring the architect rather than Len Lye, the destruction of a fine extension to the Gallery and two years without a Gallery.

''In my opinion the proposed Len Lye Centre building is dull, pompous and self important - an empty metaphor for a great artist who was known for playfulness, wit and humour.''

He warned councillors the options provided to them in today's council agenda are ''prepared by the same people who have created this mess, who are collectively continuing with the same approach with unsubstantiated estimates and have failed to propose acceptable political alternatives and no solutions with any commercial reality.''

He also took issue with the stainless steel external feature wall which council staff consider a major attraction to visitors.

''The effects of stainless steel ''tea stain'' will create continuing and expensive cleaning and maintenance. Look at the base of Wind Wand to see this effect and imagine what the facade will look like in a couple of years!''

It was likely to become an ongoing drain on the gallery's operating budget and is not accounted for in forward estimates, he said.

He also put no stock in the council's claim the stainless steel facade would turn the centre into a Taranaki icon.

''Don't be fooled by the word ''iconic'' as todays iconic building will be far too often tomorrows provincial joke.''

 Another bone of contention was the pending demolition of the 1998 extension of the Govett-Brewster.

''To replace this Gallery extension, which won an NZIA Regional Award, would cost about $4m today. Its demolition makes no financial or practical sense.''

The finances were also a problem, especially funds underwritten by the TSB Community Trust, the shortfall of $.75m the council is being asked to underwrite and the additional shortfall of $.75m for the cinema.

''Here is a bundle of promises which add up to a minimum of $1.5m in this fantasy of overvalued local development effects, over exaggerated cultural benefits and underestimated costs.''

He said it would still be possible to build a Len Lye Centre within the original $10m budget if the 1998 gallery extension was retained and incorporated in a revised design.

In the last 18 months he has written and spoken to Mr Matthews and met with Govett-Brewster director Rhana Devenport expressing his concerns.

He said last year the Govett-Brewster Foundation Trustees asked council chief executive Barbara McKerrow to arrange a meeting with councillors to discuss the centre and the gallery's future.

He said the meeting was refused then and again when wrote to Mrs McKerrow urging her to reconsider her decision.

Today's extraordinary meeting will decide whether or not to approve the crucial underwriting of $750,000 for the internal fitout of the Len Lye Centre.

The amount would be funded by council debt and the project cannot go ahead without it.

But more could be at stake than just the future of the Len Lye Centre.

The upcoming local body election could put pressure on councillors to bend to the perceived public view of the project.

The controversial centre was a major issue of the 2007 local government election and senior councillors Lynn Bublitz and Barry Finch, who were closely associated with the project, lost their seats.

But yesterday each of the councillors proclaimed their Len Lye vote would be made independently of the election, although many were unsure they could say the same of fellow councillors.

Council chief executive Barbara McKerrow said yesterday the Len Lye fitout included items needed to make the centre operational from day one.

"We're letting the council know, if all else fails, they may need to fund that."

Len Lye Committee chairman Lance Girling-Butcher said there were two reasons they were confident the money could be raised outside the council.

"One is the experience of building Puke Ariki where the money raised for the fitout exceeded the cost of the building."

Secondly they had held back on launching a real public appeal until the centre was a certainty.

He said if the council voted to continue the project, an intensive fundraising appeal would begin at once.

Of the $10 million already raised for the Lye project, $1.3m is already underwritten by the TSB Community Trust.

If the council votes against the project going ahead, it will have to pay $1.45m of the $2.18m already spent back to the Government and provide another $1m for earthquake strengthening to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery as a stand-alone project.

Some $500,000 could be recovered by the sale of the land earmarked for the centre but the rest would come from rates.

The council report said it would mean a two per cent increase in rates if the costs were recouped in a single year.

Council staff have recommended the council accept the cost of building the centre and improving the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, at a total cost of more than $15 million, excluding the underwrite.

A tender for the centre and gallery work from Clelands Construction is priced at $12,880,739 and was the lowest of three bids by local firms received by the council.

Clelands Construction is currently building the new police station.

The price of the tender has been held since December while negotiations have been taking place, but expires on March 3.

Mrs McKerrow said she believed it was a good tender.

"If we want to take advantage of that tender, the decision must be made this week and the contract let this week."

Councillors were provided with information about the tender and upcoming decisions at a workshop on Tuesday.

Fees for architects, engineers and other professional consultants add another $2,048,038 to the cost, but the exact split between the fees for the centre and the gallery is unclear.

The Len Lye Centre Trust has raised and been promised the $10m the centre was expected to cost from sources outside the council, but has still fallen short.

The council report shows the estimate of $10m did not include the centre's fitout costs or contingency.

Regardless of whether the Len Lye Centre goes ahead, the Govett-Brewster needs extensive work done to bring it up to standard.

It needs improvements around weather tightness and climate control as well as earthquake strengthening and other work which needs to be done to comply with Building Act requirements.

Council depreciation reserves already set aside will pay for the upgrades to the gallery, but Mrs McKerrow said doing the work at the same time as building the Len Lye Centre was cost-effective and efficient.

"One construction company does it at once."

Other options not recommended by council staff include the council paying for the fitout outright, reducing the size of the stainless steel feature wall and not continuing with the Len Lye project.

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