The success of Toi Wairarapa’s new base in Carterton’s High Street has only just begun, according to the Trust’s enthusiastic chair, Greg Lang.

Originally set up a decade ago to deliver the three Wairarapa councils’ combined arts, culture and heritage strategy, Toi Wairarapa’s funding was recently withdrawn by Masterton and South Wairarapa who were both intent on “doing their own thing”. With only Carterton District Council’s financial support remaining, the Trustees decided in March to move their office from Masterton to the old Wags to Whiskers shop in High Street, open the doors to all comers and see what happened.

What happened was that a busy, central Wairarapa ‘arts hub’ was born.

‘Heart of Arts’ is run by Toi Wairarapa’s energetic regional co-ordinator Corrinne Oliver and a large group of dedicated volunteers who keep the ‘hub’ open seven days a week. The shop’s beautiful light has proved ideal for hanging visual work and the large open space is often used by various groups for workshops, meetings and rehearsals. “They like the vibe here and the fact that they’re surrounded by inspiring art,” explains Corrinne. “Also, it’s done on a koha basis so it’s affordable for community groups.”

Two major exhibitions have taken place at Heart of Arts to date, including impressive paintings by visiting assistant professor of art at Western State Colorado University, Tina Butterfield. “That show sold out very quickly,” Corrinne says. “One large painting in particular, we could have sold 10 times over.”

There is a variety of work by dozens of Wairarapa artists and craftspeople permanently on display and for sale. “The feeling is that artists needed a place like this and they are starting to embrace it. People are talking about us. The quality of the art in here just gets better and better; we’re attracting the heavy hitters from all over Wairarapa. We have exhibitions booked from September through to January and beyond.”

“The Carterton Council is 100% behind this,” says councillor and Toi Wairarapa chair Greg Lang. One of Greg’s personal goals is to fill the vacant shops on the main street and to this end Toi Wairarapa is developing a programme it’s calling ‘Art Start’. The objective is to get sponsorship to place art students in empty shops where they would be obliged to work and to have the doors open every day. By sharing the space with a graduate student they would receive hands-on mentoring and sponsorship funds would provide living expenses. There could also be local employment to get the students started on their career path.

“The empty shops are not a good look,” says Greg. “Art Start is a great way for local businesses to get some visibility for themselves as well as improving the look of their town and giving students a leg-up. It’s a win-win-win.”

Carterton Mayor John Booth is a great supporter and a regular visitor to Heart of Arts. “Mayor John pops in most weeks,” says Corrinne Oliver, “and he bought a very nice big painting recently.” Visitor numbers are steadily climbing. “We average 40-60 visitors a day. Artists, people thinking about moving here, visitors with spending money in their pockets ... all sorts,” says Corrinne.

Toi Wairarapa keeps a directory of practitioners on its website, currently numbering over 300 from across the region. The new-found visibility of the Trust is also attracting people onto the Board with a passion for arts, culture and heritage and with the experience to give it some added ­momentum.

“Heart of Arts with Corrinne at the helm and the army of amazing volunteers has only scratched the surface of something I believe will turn Carterton upside down and influence the rest of the Wairarapa,” Greg says. “It’s fantastic that our recent success has been recognised by those who have the skills to take it to the next level and are prepared to come along for the ride.”