The death of acclaimed artist Ralph Hotere dashes any remaining hope of a Whangarei museum designed by and dedicated to one of Northland's most famous sons.
Mr Hotere, who was born in the tiny west coast settlement of Mitimiti, died in Dunedin on Sunday aged 81.
Although he spent his later life in Otago, one of his first solo exhibitions was at Whangarei's Reyburn House and until recently he returned to his turangawaewae in the North every Christmas.
Whangarei Art Museum director Scott Pothan said Mr Hotere had agreed to design a new art museum in Whangarei's old library when the building was made redundant by the opening of a new library next door in 2006. Talks were well advanced and the scheme had the backing of then-Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was also Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister, and Whangarei Mayor Pamela Peters.
However, the local body elections of 2007 saw Ms Peters swept out of power by Stan Semenoff, who ditched the Hotere plan in favour of reviving a scheme to convert the former Northland Regional Council building at the Town Basin into a Hundertwasser Arts Centre.
Mr Hotere's declining health - he had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2001 - also played a part in he plan's demise, Mr Pothan said.
Mr Hotere was working directly with the museum and the Government on an architectural statement which would have put Whangarei on the map while celebrating a home-grown artist. It was one of Whangarei's great lost opportunities, Mr Pothan said.
The old library is now used as a community arts centre while the Northland Regional Council building remains vacant, awaiting funding for the $13.7 million Hundertwasser project.
Meanwhile, Cliff Whiting of Russell - the only other visual artist to hold the Order of New Zealand, the country's highest honour - said Mr Hotere was without doubt the most important artist Northland had produced. Nationally he ranked alongside the greats such as Colin McCahon.
Mr Whiting said he was delighted when Mr Hotere was made a member of the Order of New Zealand in the 2012 New Year Honours. "It was a pity he got it so late, but it was great to see the honour bestowed on him. He really deserved it."