The Coastal Arts Trail: Discover hidden gems on this art-filled roadie through Taranaki, Whanganui and the Manawatū
A new arts trail, weaving through three neighbouring regions — Taranaki, Whanganui and the Manawatū — offers a cross-district road trip full of colour, characters and inspiration.
Words: Cari Johnson Photos: Coastal Art Trail NZ
The lower West Coast of the North Island is home to a constellation-like scattering of galleries, open studios, home-cum-gallery cafés, and internationally recognized museums. Some, such as the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth, shine brightly in the town centre; others twinkle off the beaten track, waiting to be discovered by the intrepid and curious.
Enter three neighbours — Taranaki, Whanganui and the Manawatū — who dreamed up a plan to connect the creative dots along their shared coastline. The plan took five years of planning and preparing, but the Coastal Arts Trail was born in January this year.
This is where travel and the arts intersect. Using Coastal Arts Trail maps and itineraries, travelers can design a self-guided journey by car and foot and take in some of the brightest and most underrated studios and galleries throughout the three regions. All that’s needed for this choose your-own adventure is a little time — whether that’s a few hours or several days — to explore a few or all 50-something stops on the way.
And explore one must, for creativity is undeniable in this part of the North Island. In the Manawatū, originality flows through the region like its namesake river. Architecture, street art and galleries flood Palmerston North, though there are plenty of gems floating beyond the city. Towns such as Ashhurst and Foxton have been incubating their own arts scene for decades and are not to be missed for their small-town charm and art.
Head northwest and several creatives have seemed to wash up over the years on the banks of Whanganui. And who wouldn’t want to stay in this quaint riverside town? Strolling through is like tumbling down a rabbit hole to find larger-than-life crested penguins, river-inspired creatures and other works of whimsy clambering up the city walls.
This is in part thanks to Whanganui Walls, a biennial street art festival where international and local artists transform blank walls into murals for the public. In 2021, Whanganui was officially deemed a City of Design by the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, an international cohort of cities putting creativity and cultural industry at the heart of local development.
Then there’s Taranaki, a region heralded for galleries, op-shops and the much-anticipated WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) festival, which usually (cancelled this year thanks to the pandemic) transforms New Plymouth every March into an extravaganza of song, crafts and colour. There’s a buzz in the air even when it’s not festival season. What’s that? A band jamming outside the food trucks on New Plymouth’s Liardet Street? Whether in the city or smaller towns such as Stratford and Ōpunake, one rarely has to hunt for the thrumming heart and soul of the region.
Visiting these regions with either a few hours to spare or ample time to explore? Here are a few highlights from the Coastal Arts Trail.
A city bubbling with business and university students, Palmerston North is an obvious place to start or end one’s journey. Not to be missed is Te Manawa Art Gallery, the city’s public art gallery and science centre, which houses some of the city’s most prized art and heritage collections. (Tip: Call ahead to arrange a free behind-the-scenes tour.)
Down the road on Church Street is community-arts centre Square Edge, a three-storey labyrinth containing a gallery, café, stores, studio spaces open for wandering and a courtyard adorned with street art. Leave plenty of time to meander around the CBD to find street art or eye-catching buildings around most corners.
Feilding, a nearby town voted New Zealand’s most beautiful city more than a dozen times, is home to much more than pretty architecture and brick pathways. Head to the Art Studio & Gallery for works by painter and printmaker Joe McMenamin, who is often at work and keen for a yarn.
Over in Ashhurst, ceramicist Suzanne McAllen’s villa serves as her home, studio and a gallery shop that she’s set up on her front verandah. Visitors may leave with some ceramic treasures — and, if lucky, some produce from her garden out back.
In Foxton, residents are proud of the Te Awahou Riverside Cultural Park, and rightly so. As the name suggests, here visitors learn about culture, including that of local Māori, as well as Dutch settlers, and what the Dutch have contributed to Kiwi culture. Before a stroll along Foxton Beach, make time for an espresso and chat with photographer Reuben James at his fine-art gallery and espresso bar, L’Arte. (Tip: If it’s closed, Reuben is likely out surfing.)
Artists in the city and surrounds have etched, grown and upcycled the ordinary into the extraordinary. In the coastal suburb Castlecliff, ceramicist Ivan Vostinar has transformed a former supermarket into his home and the Vostinar Gallery, a space for showcasing his extensive collection of sculptures, paintings, and ceramics. Ivan, formerly the ceramicist for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, also uses his talents to beautify the area. So far, the green-thumbed potter has planted the entire street with succulents.
In the town proper, nook-and-cranny gems and public works are plentiful. There’s a three-for-one special at 85 Glasgow Street Art Centre, an art-filled house with a Latin American-inspired café and a trio of galleries under one roof.
Across town in Old Whanganui, head to the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics for a whopping collection by local and overseas ceramicists. The museum, the brainchild of renowned potter Rick Rudd, is the only museum of its kind in the country. For those who prefer to get hands-on, beginner-friendly glassblowing workshops at the nearby New Zealand Glassworks are extremely popular — plus, there’s an on-site gallery begging to be perused. (Book well in advance as these workshops sell out quickly.)
This is an eclectic part of town worthy of exploration; walk around the same block to find Article Café — a place to break for coffee, art and vintage curios — and Orphic, a contemporary art gallery.
A short drive away is Māori artist Cecelia Kumeroa’s 7-5-metre-tall corten-steel waka sculpture, named Waka Maumahara mo Pura McGregor, which stands at the northwest end of Virginia Lake. Original kowhaiwhai (a traditional pattern) is laser cut into the memorial waka in honour of Te Pura Manihera McGregor, a prominent figure from Whanganui’s past.
Galleries, studios and antique stores dotted along SH3 and SH45 require a leisurely pace with wiggle room for pitstops. Otherwise, one could miss what lay in places such as Pātea, a town that became world-famous for the Pātea Māori Club’s 1984 smash hit Poi E. Gallery Pātea, a small non-profit on the main street, is deceptively chocka with not-to-be-missed pieces, including kete, carvings, prints, and photography.
Jo Stallard and Stuart Greenhill’s Fenton Street Arts Collective in Stratford wasn’t meant to be a café; the original concept was to promote their gallery by offering espressos to wandering visitors. Their apartment is at the top of the historic building, while downstairs is an art gallery with works by Jo and others, a lively café and Stuart’s small gin distillery. On the opposite side of the mountain, textile artist Viv Davy’s From Out of the Blue Studio Gallery in Ōpunake features handmade textiles, weaving and blankets in a myriad colours and patterns.
In New Plymouth, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery needs no introduction; the internationally recognized contemporary museum houses nine exhibition spaces, a 60-seat cinema and an art shop that is like an exhibition itself. This jewel in the crown is a must-see if only for the country’s first solo-artist museum, the Len Lye Centre. (Tip: Consider stopping for lunch at Monica’s Eatery, an art café inspired by the life of arts patron Monica Brewster.)
Nearby are CAS (Contemporary Art Space), a heritage building-turned-gallery thanks to local artist Reuben Paterson, and Gover St Gallery, an inclusive community gallery with artworks by hundreds of artists (some as young as 10).
If you didn’t know where to look, one might never find The Jewel and the Jeweller down a nondescript alley (91c Devon Street West). Book ahead to learn how to forge a piece at one of the studio’s popular workshops or peruse the extensive range of contemporary jewellery that doubles as artwork.