Arts hub rises from rats and ruin


If anything has been responsible for the flourishing performing arts scene in the Wakatipu, it’s an unprepossessing former school building in Queenstown. Philip Chandler talks to three Queenstown Performing Arts Centre Trust trustees

Fifteen-plus years ago, the former Qeenstown high school manual block was a run-down, rat-infested cesspit.

Fast-forward to 2016 and it’s catering for hundreds of students learning performing arts like music, dance, acting and karate, as well as hosting concerts, rehearsals, exams and recordings.

As the Queenstown Performing Arts Centre Trust, which rents the rooms from the council, celebrates its 15th anniversary, the community can be thankful for the vision shown and hard work performed by the original trustees and other volunteers.

Casting around for a venue for her singing lessons, QPACT chairman Margaret O’Hanlon recalls coming across the dilapidated, virtually disused but centrally located rooms on the corner of Ballarat and Henry Streets.

“I started thinking, ‘this actually has the potential to be something much greater’.”

She contacted other tutors who were also looking for rooms, like ICAN modelling agency owner Tracy Cameron, who was hiring a hotel conference room for her classes.

“I called everybody together, we had a meeting at the old Vudu [cafe] and I said, ‘this is what I want to do’.”

O’Hanlon, Cameron and dance class tutor, the late Bronwyn Meredith, took their case to local mayor Warren Cooper - “he called us ‘Charlie’s Angels'”, she says.

Cameron adds: “His board table never looked so good.”

O’Hanlon says Cooper suggested they lease the old two-storey high school building across the road, but she told him it didn’t suit.

“My case to councillors was, ‘you give me the lease of the whole building and I will raise the money to make this building into an asset and not a liability’.”

Cooper relented, and the original trustees raised $150,000 from community trusts and private donors to upgrade the rooms.

Donors included local-based movie star Sam Neill, who also attended the official opening.

In his accompanying letter, Neill wrote: “This is a wonderful idea and I congratulate you on your enterprise.”

O’Hanlon says renovating the former school building was a huge job.

“The floors were covered with lino glued to the surface and [sculptor] Minhal Al Halabi came up from the [neighbouring] arts centre with a hose and we sat there scrubbing off this horrible glue.”

Cameron set to work with three kettles of boiling water.

“We found dead rats, it was really disgusting,” she says.

When they were readying the rooms, the council was pulling down the old high school building and Centennial Stadium, over the road, to prepare for a proposed conference centre and relocated council chambers.

At the opening, O’Hanlon says a local artist told her: “It’s lovely to see this opening but this time next year you’ll have an even bigger building on this site.”

A new council, however, scotched those plans, and the QPACT rooms have flourished as a venue.

Cameron says: “We had this abundance of females and not one of us could be arsed changing a lightbulb, fixing a broken panel, so we decided ‘let’s bring a man on’.”

As a result, karate tutor Craig McLachlan became a trustee, though he adds: “I delegate one of our guys to change the lightbulbs.”

O’Hanlon says the trust has almost outgrown its facility.

“We do actually send some people down to the arts centre - I sometimes can’t even get space and I’m the chair.”

She says it would be ideal if the council built a performing arts centre but says the current rooms are very adequate.

“In actual fact our building is perfect because of the wooden floors, the high ceiling and the acoustics.”

The only issue is that sound, from pipe band rehearsals, for example, penetrates other rooms.

“I recently rented the whole building so that I could do a recording, and [local singer-songwriter] Holly Arrowsmith has recorded in there, too,” O’Hanlon says.

She believes the council gets a very good deal - “they literally contribute nothing except when the roof is leaking.

Most importantly, she says the rooms provide an affordable space for the local arts community.

“Where would they all go otherwise?

“Who can afford to have a commercial spot?”