Sparking connections and making magic as a way of being

Placemaking in a heritage and contemporary setting makes for an amazing creative hub. We hear more of the good hearts involved. [In partnership with Ellen Melville Centre]


The year was 1962 and the first rumblings of women's liberation were beginning to be felt around the world. In downtown Auckland, the opening ribbon had just been cut for the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Hall, a purpose-built space for “women's societies.”

Fast-forward to 2017 and this building now boasts a new name - the Ellen Melville Centre - and a refurbishment that includes five rooms named after influential local women for hire. Jointly, it honours the history of the space while looking to the future. It netted the Ellen Melville Centre and Freyberg Place an Auckland Architecture Award (Heritage) in 2018. It was described by the New Zealand Institute of Architects as “sensitive in its revelation of a fabric that included both heritage and contemporary elements. The programme is excellent in the manner in which it generously opens the building up to the community.”

In the two years since its reopening, the Ellen Melville Centre has most certainly opened its doors to the community. So it is a perfect time to reflect on the successes of the centre to date and the team of people behind those successes.

Lisa Spasic, Helen Clark, Leesa Tilley - supplied

A welcoming space with a welcoming team

From opening day the Place Manager, Leesa Tilley, set out to bring a team together who were welcoming and supportive. Leesa has a background of leading projects in international arts and entertainment management and promotion (she is currently promoting Louis Theroux for the BBC). She is joined by Programme Co-ordinator Ateesh Patel who has worked extensively in civic events. Ateesh has delivered a range of notable events from ANZAC services in the Auckland Domain, to the West Fan Zone for the Rugby World Cup, and even worked with Clarence House (UK) and DIA for the welcome activation of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Auckland. Zachary Tucker, who has made a name for himself organising campus events in the USA, rounds off the team at the centre.

As part of Auckland Council and with the guidance of the Waitemata Local Board, this team has steered the Ellen Melville Centre from strength to strength, reaching 210,000 people on social media, tripling venue hire customers and delivering an annual calendar of around 160 events and programmes attended by more than 20,000 people.   

Outside Ellen Melville Centre with bFM Drive Island - supplied


Sparking connections

Leesa also highlights “the power of having a shared community space.” She elaborates: “Last Christmas we hosted a dinner with traditional Christmas food and gift boxes for our rough sleepers. Our wonderful community jumped in and helped with serving the dinner, the Auckland Street Choir sang and, business people, neighbours and rough sleepers sat side by side eating a home-cooked meal. It was our proudest moment.  I looked over and saw Ateesh, our programme coordinator who came up with the concept, and Zach and Jessica’s team cooking in the kitchen, Audrey and all the volunteers, and I could see wet eyes - everyone was so moved by the experience”

The Ellen Melville Centre is focused on connections, however they are sparked.

Volunteers for Ellen Melville Centre’s Christmas Dinner - Supplied

“We hope to enrich the lives of people whether it be by feeding hungry people, providing a place for networking and meeting people, through fitness or education classes, or by just enjoying an amazing piece of artwork or being inspired by the dance or music we host in the Centre,” says Leesa.  


Capturing the spirit of creativity

To celebrate both New Zealand Music Month and Auckland’s place as a UNESCO city of music, the Ellen Melville Centre worked with Student Radio, Auckland Universities 95bFM and NZ on Air to showcase musicians and DJs every Friday of the month of May.

Also exhibiting for NZ Music Month were projections of NZ Punk and New Wave poster art curated by NZ Music industry royalty Murray Cammick.

Skilaa perform bFM Drive Island (sponsored by Ellen Melville Centre and NZ on Air -supplied

Reflecting on the successes and strengths of the space, Murray says “There are too many individual successes to list, but the basic success of the venue lies in its hosting a multitude of activities from the quiet prayer group to the not so quiet 95bFM live broadcasts. Another strength of the centre has been its coordination with city-wide or nationwide events such as NZ Music Month or The Auckland Festival of Photography.”

“The Ellen Melville Centre has a basic strength that is: ‘Location, location, location’, as they say,”

“The Ellen Melville Centre has a basic strength that is: ‘Location, location, location’, as they say,” Murray continues. “The centre is located in the middle of the few remaining narrow lanes of old Auckland. The area has been a centre of creativity for Auckland since the 1960s with fashion boutiques, nightclubs, bookstores and music venues. The projection shows I have done have helped reflect on the creative history of Auckland city and hopefully the Ellen Melville Centre will continue to foster the spirit of creativity in inner-city Auckland.”

Caitlin McIlhagga, General Manager and bFM DJ hosts monthly events at the Ellen Melville Centre “the opportunity to have a regular residency at a local space is awesome” she enthuses and echoes much of Murray’s sentiments, adding “the community programme and the way the space is run is what gives it such an open door feeling, [that’s a real strength] and that's down to Leesa and the team.”


MC for the opening event Murray Cammick, Leesa Tilley and Graham Reid - supplied

Barbara Holloway, Activation Manager (City Centre) for Auckland Council has been heavily involved with the Ellen Melville Centre, partnering with it for key events including ArtWeek and Fashion Week. For her, the bFM programme “is one of the best programmes I’ve seen in my 25 years of public work…..[Leesa] has incredible contacts in the music and art industry and she’s brought all of these contacts to support her role, but at her heart she’s got a very powerful sense of social justice; and that’s where our crossovers lie - a lot of our work has a sense of social justice.”


Creating magic and memories

For Barbara, one of her stand out memories of the Centre to date was the first Ngā Kete E Toru Showcase which features films from Māori and Pacific peoples and other indigenous cultures around the world. “Leo Koziol [Festival Director] is internationally recognised, so it was a real boon to establish that partnership,” says Barbara.
“It was a cold winter morning, the day of the opening” remembers Barbara. “A young Inuit woman started singing and calling in her own language; it was eerie and beautiful. I remember thinking ‘this is a moment that I am going to remember for the rest of my life.”

“Good hearts are not hard to find - I meet them every day here,” says Leesa. “I feel so incredibly proud that I’ve been given the opportunity to contribute to building a community in a place honouring the strongest female leaders of Aotearoa. The night of the last elections, the office was unofficially christened the Jacinda Ardern Room. Every day I try to emulate what compassionate and wise leadership is... it’s the most unlikely person walking through the door who becomes my daily motivation; this community constantly stuns me with their generosity, kindness and spirit.”  

 What used to be an empty space has now become a place that connects and creates memories for an entire community that will last a lifetime. With such a variety of people and ideas shifting in and out of its doors, moments of connection like those remain the only constant.

What’s next for Ellen Melville Centre? To stay relevant in constantly changing Auckland, it needs to be an evolving space that can provide something for everyone. Community feedback is important. You can have your say or make an Expression of Interest to present a programme or event in partnership with EMC by emailing programme co-ordinator Ateesh Patel at or via

 95bFM Drive Island with Lucky Boy performing at Ellen Melville Centre -supplied

Written by

Kate Powell

25 Jun 2019

Kate is a cultural critic, curator and gallery essayist. She has held a variety of community-art focussed roles as a social media strategist, artist liaison, artistic director, and publicist. 

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