Last year both Cheryll Sotheran and Cliff Whiting, the founding directors of Te Papa, passed away. In August Golden Days, Te Papa’s highly successful object theatre ‒ commissioned by Cheryll and Cliff less than a year out from opening ‒ finally closed. Steve La Hood reflects on what it was like to work with these two giants of the New Zealand cultural scene.
Chernobyl they called her... and there were melt-downs, tears and some rather inventive curses... but everyone who worked on the making of Te Papa knew the vision - knew they were expected to do better than their best - and absolutely knew who was in charge.
Cheryll Sotheran was the client who gave us the inspiration for Story Inc. James and I formed the company at about the same time we finished making Golden Days. Even after she left Te Papa, Cheryll advocated for us, mentored us, developed us.
Cliff Whiting was Cheryll's 'other half' in those heady days. Unflappable, spiritually centred, embracing new energies and sharing his mighty creativity with humble generosity.
You couldn't imagine a better pair to work with - and they're both gone: Cheryll right at the end of last year and Cliff in July. In the past two years we had greatly benefited from having Cliff's wisdom on our team throughout the He Tohu project.
Golden Days has gone too - the thing that brought us together.
When I pitched the idea for Golden Days to Cheryll, Ken Gorbey, Cliff, Elaine Gurian and the Te Papa Board, Cheryll's only question was: "Can you actually do this?"
To which I could only reply: "I don't know"
Prompted by Elaine, Cheryll pronounced: "I love it, I want it, I'm giving you 75 thousand dollars and three months to prove you can do it."
Three months and two weeks later, I’m sitting on the floor between the famous 'Red Couches' with a 29-page A3 storyboard (hand sketches, collages, technical notes... all bundled in there) - and performing Golden Days out loud to Cheryll, who's in bare feet and a soft grey dress... and Cliff who's in jeans and Hi-Viz, covered in MDF dust and clutching a Makita jig-saw.
"...and it's morning and we're back in the junk shop!" The presentation is finished.
Between Cliff and Cheryll - a look and a pause. Cliff gets up, brushes off his hand and extends it to Steve. He leaves. Cheryll does that 'death-stare' thing that we all remember.
"Eleven months - a million dollars - less the seventy-five thousand you've already got. Don't let me down."
The deal is done - formalities to follow.
It’s a wonderful thing to work with people with a vision.
Golden Days, designed to run for two years, closed down last August after nineteen years. It was still one of Te Papa's top-rated and best-loved exhibitions.
Arohanui, Cheryll and Cliff.