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New Year Honours 2023: The man in the back room making sure the Taranaki art scene thrives

It’s the festival that feels like an inseparable part of the Taranaki story but Womad very nearly packed its bags and left New Plymouth for good.

“A half a breath away,” says recently retired Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (Taft) chairman Charles Wilkinson of the uncertainty created by two Covid-enforced cancellations in 2021 and 2022.

“Because there are bigger players in the market that are available and they would love to get their hands on Womad.”

That Womad didn’t leave is in large part thanks to the strong relationships Wilkinson made it a priority to build with Womad partners in the United Kingdom.

And while New Plymouth isn’t the biggest festival, Wilkinson’s influence meant that despite the city being unable to host for two years, those UK partners realised something very special would be lost if it went to another venue.

For this, and his service to arts governance and the community the New Plymouth lawyer has been made a Member of the New Zealand order of Merit in the New Years Honours 2023.

Womad is the biggest, flashiest star of Wilkinson’s steady hand on the back room tiller but he’s been there in the background making things happen in the Taranaki arts world since 2006.

Through Taft he has helped grow the Taranaki Gardens Festival into the country’s biggest and he snared a New Plymouth slot for the Tropfest short film festival.

As well as this he’s been chair of the Tainui Home Trust Board (2005-2011), spent three years as member of Sacred Heart Girls’ College Board of Trustees (2005-2007) and was the honoury solicitor for North Taranaki Family Planning Assocation (1985 -1990) and New Plymouth Riding for the Disabled (2005 – 2013).

The recognition of his under the radar but highly influential contribution is quite a surprise, he says, but a delightful one.

His role in the Taranaki arts scene was not something he expected. By his own admission he’s not artistic and he didn’t set out to become involved.

It was his friendship with Grant Kerr, who established the Taranaki Festival of New Zealand Arts in 1991 with Roger King, that saw him thrown in the deep end.

Once Kerr stepped from his role as a trustee he suggested Wilkinson take his place.

”He said ‘OK Charles, next meeting is Tuesday. You’re it’.”

Ten years later in 2016 Wilkinson was chair of Taft and he remains a confirmed champion of the arts.

“If you take these things away from the community, what have you got? It would be a bland and boring place to be. We’ve got to look after it.”

Part of looking after it is acknowledging sponsors, for which he says Taranaki is luckier than most regions and another part is acknowledging the hundreds of volunteers that give the region the ability to do so much for relatively little.

Womad alone requires 400 people to work without pay, shepherding artists, manning waste stations and checking tickets.

But there are plenty of roles you don’t see. The ones helping build the framework, refining the key performance indicators, making sure goals are met – the governance.

“If you have those skills,” Wilkson says, “Get yourself out there.”

Article Credit: Stuff NZ