Sustainability in museums: Mahara Gallery

By Nancy Bale, Gallery Assistant, Mahara Gallery.

Since starting at Mahara Gallery last September as a part-time Gallery Assistant, I have been involved in organising and delivering public programmes as well as Front of House services. Mahara Gallery is the district public gallery for the Kāpiti Coast and offers a lively exhibition and public programme with a staff of 2.3 of which I am the .3 and the most recent addition.

Children’s Artspace

Over the balmy Waikanae summer, Mahara Gallery set up a Children’s Artspace. Two contrasting shows proved to be an excellent backdrop to our summer public programmes and provided sources of inspiration to many of our young visitors to the gallery; a Don Driver exhibition and a small curated exhibition titled NaturAL World. This selection of paintings, sculptures and photographs conveyed the natural world in a state of constant change and in some cases heading towards destruction or extinction. The Don Driver exhibition showcased his characteristic use of bright colours, varied textures and humorous assemblages of found objects.

Artspace at Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.
Artspace at Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.

We kitted out the Artspace with a combination of recycled and natural materials as well as more traditional paper, glue, scissors and pastels. The idea behind using recycled materials and found objects was to mirror the materials found and used in the works by Don Driver and to encourage the audience to see the aesthetic potential of objects that initially look like rubbish. This idea of reusing and recycling linked with the ideas and images found in the NaturAL World exhibition.

Children of a variety of ages came to visit and once the space had been ‘discovered’ more kids flocked in, some in groups and some with Mum, Dad or Grandparents. With a wee bit of guidance from our small staff and dedicated volunteers, the children set about exploring the creative possibilities of a plastic milk bottle or creating collages from out of date magazines or pamphlets.

By the end of the exhibition the children of Kāpiti had completely covered the wall and plinths laid out for them to display their work, and we have had parents clamouring for a permanent Children’s Artspace in the gallery ever since. While the space did usually require some maintenance (keeping the supplies stocked, daily vacuuming and removing any draft attempts), judging from the range, volume and quality of work created, the space was a big success. It added a different way for children to experience the artworks on display and got them to think about creative ways to reuse and repurpose materials.  I feel that it altered the children’s perception of the gallery space; into a place where children were explicitly welcomed rather than a space that is deemed to be restrictive and aimed at adult audiences.

Lisa Terreni’s Ephemeral Art Workshops

To round off a successful summer season we invited Lisa Terreni from Victoria University to Waikanae to give a Children’s Ephemeral Art Workshop (or two!). We had an overwhelming response from the local community with parents and grandparents phoning anxious to book their children in right up until the night before. Lisa had prepared a slideshow as well as her collection of beautiful natural materials for the kids to use to assemble their fleeting compositions.

Lisa Terreni's workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.
Lisa Terreni’s workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.

Lisa talked to the children about the meaning of the word ‘ephemeral’ and showed examples of ephemeral art, from Andy Goldsworthy, to Tibetan monks, to her own work. She explained that the children would arrange the materials on their circular or rectangular canvases to create their own artwork, and then they would ask a grown-up to take a photograph before putting everything back and starting all over again. The importance of the photograph was that it would be the only record of their work. The children (from preschool to primary aged) caught on to the idea very quickly and soon became entranced in the creative process. The children placed their name tags next to their work and we diligently collected email addresses so that we could email them their photos.

Artwork from Lisa Terreni's workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.
Artwork from Lisa Terreni’s workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.

Both the exhibition and public programmes got us all thinking about sustainable practices and since then we have streamlined our recycling system so that we are sorting our rubbish correctly. In the same vein I have recently discovered a service called Love Notes which will transform the piles of one-sided scrap paper, that offices seem to generate by the mountain, into cute stationary and handy note pads (for a fee, of course).

Reducing our impact on the planet and engaging in discussion about sustainable practice has been a feature at Mahara Gallery for several years and, even though it is a modest gallery, in a small town, and operating on a small scale compared to the rest of the world, it is still important to us that we work as sustainably as we can. Sustainability was one of the topics for our series of Friday Lunchtime Forums. We hosted Dr Mike Joy, lecturer at Massey University, Hugh Tennent from Tennent + Brown Architects, Sophie Jerram from Urban Dream Brokerage and Dan Ormond from Ideas Shop. You can listen to a recording of the discussion on our website.

Sustainability workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.
Sustainability workshop, Mahara Gallery. Image courtesy of Mahara Gallery.

Another initiative that the Gallery is involved in is Native Habitats: Waikanae Children’s Creations which took place last year and this year Water / Life : Wai / Ora.  These projects engage local schools to produce artwork or poetry inspired by the environment; the work is exhibited at Mahara Gallery and published in a book. To learn more email Nancy at

I am still looking for a way to re-use foamcore exhibition labels; to my knowledge they are not recyclable. If anyone has a suggestion for what to do with them I would very much like to hear from you!