Wellington’s ‘black box’ venues: Report recommends selling or redeveloping Opera House


The Opera House in Wellington. Photo / Wellington NZ

A new report recommends Wellington’s Opera House should be redeveloped or sold, after finding the city’s key venues are only being used at half their capacity and are not fit for purpose.

One unnamed stakeholder quoted in the report called the TSB Arena “one of NZ’s worst big rooms” and another referred to Shed 6 as a “big box”.

But the quiet death of a proposal to build a bright and shiny 12,000 seat indoor arena in the city could free up tens of millions of dollars needed to upgrade Wellington’s existing venues.

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Wellington NZ, the region’s economic development agency, commissioned specialist research company Gemba to undertake the recent report.

The agency wanted to see whether the venues it manages, specifically the Opera House, Michael Fowler Centre, TSB Arena and Shed 6, are up to scratch for the coming decades.

The answer was overwhelmingly a “no” with venues suffering from under-investment in technology and infrastructure.

The report also found content was skewed towards those over the age of 55, with an untapped potential to cater for a younger and increasingly diverse audience through live music, comedy, theatre, and cultural festivals.

TSB Arena. Photo / Marek Peszynski Wellington NZ
TSB Arena. Photo / Marek Peszynski Wellington NZ

Supply gaps were identified in performing arts venues with a capacity between 500 to 1000 people and in concert or indoor events venues with a capacity of more than 6000 people.

Wellington City councillors were briefed yesterday afternoon on the November 2019 report, which has been released to the Herald under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

The report was particularly scathing of Shed 6 and the Opera House and recommended they be re-purposed, redeveloped or sold.

Stakeholder feedback said the Opera House has a poor line of sight from many areas of seating as well as being dark and difficult to upgrade or change.

Meanwhile, Shed 6 doesn’t even have facilities to operate as an independent venue.

Shed 6. Photo / Wellington NZ
Shed 6. Photo / Wellington NZ

Wellington NZ events and experiences general manager Warrick Dent said he didn’t think there was any appetite to sell the Opera House.

Instead Dent said the organisation was keen to have modular seating that could be easily taken out or retracted to accommodate stand-up gigs, and attract different artists for younger audiences.

“If you’re going to a contemporary music gig, most people want to get up and enjoy themselves, you don’t want to sit.”

That said, the dress circle and gallery could still be used for seated tickets.

Another idea is to section parts of the space off to create a more intimate mid-size theatre, Dent said.

“We want to make sure the building gets saved, it’s a beloved building in Wellington… and we believe, with some work on it, it can be a performance space that survives another 50 to 100 years.”

Shed 6 was built as temporary extra space when the Town Hall closed due to seismic concerns, but it looks like its days as a performance venue are over.

Wellington NZ has recommended it gets incorporated into the neighbouring TSB Arena as extra space for the likes of changing rooms.

The Opera House. Photo / Andy Spain Photography
The Opera House. Photo / Andy Spain Photography

The TSB Arena has its own problems too, like not having plug in and play technology for concerts.

It means those putting on events face additional costs for things like rigging, dressing, and equipment.

Dent called them “black box” venues.

The prospect of a 12,000 seat indoor arena, widely touted during Justin Lester’s term as mayor, has been whittled down to a distant dream.

Covid-19 well and truly pushed any plans for it into the never never.

With that in mind, the report said the TSB Arena needed better visitor facilities and technology to attract events and meet hirer’s expectations.

Wellington NZ views it as a priority upgrade, after the Opera House.

Wellington City Council set aside $85.7 million of capital expenditure the last time it adjusted its Long Term Plan, which is about to come up for review again.

There’s thinking around the tables of both Wellington NZ and city council that money could be-allocated to fund the proposed venue upgrades.

The Michael Fowler Centre. Photo / Michael Farr
The Michael Fowler Centre. Photo / Michael Farr

The Michael Fowler Centre is less pressing as it’s difficult to reconfigure and could be considered having more of a civic purpose than as a performance venue.

The report considered the Michael Fowler Centre to have limited scalability and flexibility because its seats cannot be removed and its foyer is not designed to host parallel events.

None of the four venues exceeded 51 per cent utilisation of their capacity, although this finding is disputed.

Wellington NZ includes rehearsal and setup time in its utilisation measurement which is more like 70 per cent, meanwhile Gemba only records when the buildings are used for the actual events.

Wellington's Town Hall. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Wellington’s Town Hall. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Town Hall and St James Theatre are also in Wellington NZ’s portfolio. Both are currently closed for earthquake strengthening but expected to open early this decade.

Meanwhile, Tākina, the city’s new Convention and Exhibition Centre is due to be complete in 2023.

When the buildings open, it’s expected a significant number of events will be hosted there instead of the existing four operational venues.

This further decreases already low utilisation, but also creates opportunity for more performance spaces, if councillors agree to upgrade them.


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