Sculptureum: New Zealand's sculpture park with a difference

"You'd never see something like that in Auckland Art Gallery," Anthony Grant says, pointing at a large rhinoceros made out of plaster and sack cloth. "But why not? It's a lot of fun."

Around the corner are nine earthenware dogs perched playfully on wooden blocks. Instinctively, I start to smile. "Look, you're smiling," Grant says. "That's what I want. No one smiles in art galleries anymore."

Grant has spent the past seven years transforming 10 hectares of farmland near Matakana, a small town 70 kilometres north of Auckland, into Sculptureum – a startlingly original sculpture park. The complex contains more than 400 works, spread over three gardens and six galleries, ranging from "serious" pieces by Picasso, Cezanne and Rodin to "inexpensive knock-offs" by unknown artists.

"Sculptureum is for people who've been turned off art by boring displays and arrogant curators," he says. "I want to show them that art can be fun and it can enrich your life."

Despite working full-time as a barrister, 69-year-old Grant has amassed an extraordinarily eclectic collection in almost every material imaginable. The first gallery is devoted to glassware and includes two beautiful knotted glass ropes and a stunning disc-shaped sculpture by Lino Tagliapietra (considered one of the world's finest glass blowers). Grant estimates the works in this room alone cost $NZ600,000.

In the gallery next door are lithographs by Picasso and Chagall ("I had to sell a boat to buy that"), a rare etching by Cezanne and a haunting wooden face by an unknown Greek artist. On the opposite wall are two heads by Rodin flanking a wooden Pokemon character by Auckland artist Roger Mortimer. No other museum would display works like this together.

In subsequent galleries there are monkeys made out of corrugated iron ("The artist backs over it in her car to flatten it," Grant says), a sheepdog made from a mop, flowers fashioned from recycled plastic milk bottles and an abstract work constructed from old shuttlecocks.

After zigzagging through the five indoor galleries, visitors emerge into The Palm Garden, where a stone path meanders through islands of palms interspersed with art works. Many have been arranged in playful combinations – a man with binoculars peers salaciously at an abstract female nude while wooden mice scuttle around the hind legs of a driftwood elephant. But some are serious, too. The label for a pair of huia birds says one of the reasons they became extinct is because "museums …wanted to display stuffed specimens in their boring cabinets".

Adjacent is The Pink Snail Garden, which contains a colourful menagerie of plastic animal sculptures. There's a family of bright pink snails, an enormous green rabbit, a life-size polar bear made from recycled white goods and four trees populated with brightly coloured meerkats. There are real creatures, too – turtles in a tank and aviaries containing colourful finches, parrots and parakeets. Why? "Because the most interesting sculptures are made by nature," Grant says.

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Eventually the path leads back inside for what many consider the highlight of the collection – a stunning two-metre-high orange and blue glass chandelier by celebrated American glass sculptor, Dale Chihuly. To Grant's knowledge, it's the only one of its kind in Australasia. As if this weren't enough, there's also the wonderfully random Garden of Creative Diversity, which contains another 46 works, including towering prehistoric rocks, ruminations on art and music, and a walkway lined with inspirational quotes from Steve Jobs. Plus, there's Rothko, a stylish restaurant that serves inventive modern cuisine alongside award-winning wines from Sculptureum's own vineyard.

How Grant managed to create all this while working full-time is nothing short of miraculous. In The Sculptureum Story, a book he somehow found time to write on the side, he says: "Life is too great a privilege to be allowed to become bland. We should make it interesting and rewarding." With Sculptureum, he's done both. It's an admirable achievement – an attraction that inspires, educates and engages.

Rob McFarland was a guest of Sculptureum.

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VISIT

The Sculptureum is at 40 Omaha Flats Road, Matakana. Tickets range from $NZ25-$NZ49 depending on the gardens and galleries visited. Guided tours with Anthony Grant can be booked for no extra cost. Check website for opening days and hours. See sculptureum.nz

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