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MOTAT’s Michael Frawley on the past & future

The Big Idea Editor, “Bold, Creative & Aspirational Leadership Is Required”, The Big Idea, 26 June 2024

After 11 years of leading and transforming one of Tāmaki Makaurau’s best-known cultural institutions, Michael Frawley opens up on the state of the sector in his final days at MOTAT.

Michael Frawley, Chief Executive of MOTAT.

The end is nigh for Michael Frawley – at least in his time as Chief Executive of MOTAT.

Frawley (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāpuhi) was appointed in 2013 to meet Dame Cheryll Southeran’s challenge to find the museum’s ‘true north’ and develop a strategy that transformed MOTAT from a “museum of things to a lightbulb institution that was audience focused, vision-based and had a transformative impact on its community.”

This week, he brings that chapter to a close with a sense of satisfaction. He had another four years to go, but decided towards the end of last year now was the right time to step down, handing the reigns over to Craig Hickman-Goodall, who has been the organisation’s Chief Operating Officer since 2022.

Finding ‘true north’

Looking back to his original goals set 11 years ago, Frawley tells The Big Idea “I was determined to professionalise and improve the quality of the museum’s collection, processes, culture, and reputation and to get the airplanes – and particularly the two flying boats – under cover.

“Identifying MOTAT’s ‘true north’ and developing the associated strategy involved input from the museum’s Board, employees, volunteers, the MOTAT Society, Auckland Council, Local Boards, and our neighbours in the Western Springs precinct.”

That strategy saw a significant increase in the number of families, children and schools that visit MOTAT each year, with Frawley noting “We also took steps to address the significant infrastructure and collection issues the museum was facing which culminated in the renewal of three exhibition buildings, the relocation and documenting of our offsite collection, a dedicated carpark and the restoration and relocation of MOTAT’s majestic flying boats into the Aviation Hall.

Michael Frawley (left) with the MOTAT team. Photo: Supplied.

“These outcomes involved a high level of teamwork, and it has been an honour and privilege to work with such a knowledgeable, passionate and highly engaged group of employees and volunteers.”

When asked is he expected to stay in the job for over a decade, Frawley replies “I knew from previous experience that it would take three to four years to bed MOTAT’s strategy in and to change its culture and focus. I also knew that it would several years to identify, develop and implement the systems and processes the museum needed.

“The last of the current projects culminated in the opening of Te Puawānanga, our STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths) centre, in June and MOTAT is well placed to meet the challenges of the future.”

State of the sector

As someone who has seen the many changes that have been thrust upon the arts and culture sector – from pre to post COVID – Frawley has had plenty to mull over – and pulls no punches.

“While the arts and culture sector has become more sophisticated and focused over the last decade, there remains a lack of vision and strategic direction on the part of Councils as to the vital role the sector can play in the life of our major cities.

“The traditional silos between museums and galleries remains,” he explains. “It is only by developing an overarching vision and aligned governance structure that the true benefits – both culturally and economically – of a vibrant arts and culture sector will be realised. This, in turn, would enable a more focused and innovative review of the funding models required to realise the vision.

“It is not dissimilar to the challenges the country faces with a sustained lack of investment in infrastructure. In that case, the focus is on improved productivity and economic growth. In the case of the arts and culture sector, the focus must be on meeting the social, cultural and environmental needs of rapidly growing and increasingly diverse communities.

“Our sector provides the experiences, tells our stories, challenges our young minds and celebrates our Māori heritage – it is who we are. Of course, it is about sufficient funding to not only operate but to address the under-investment in the existing arts and cultural infrastructure.

“It begins with recognition of the essential role our sector plays in the lives of our families, communities and our visitors from afar.

“The Ministry for Culture and Heritage and local Councils need to work with the sector to develop overarching strategies that the institutions can align their activities to and a more equitable funding model that factors in the operational and capital requirements of the major institutions – so that our heritage is preserved and promoted in a way that engages, educates and inspires our children.

“Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua – I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past as we can learn from our ancestors and what they did and achieved.”

Michael Frawley. Photo: Supplied.

Frawley advocates strongly for a shift from the siloed system into something that brings a more collective, collaborative strength.

“There is merit in taking a precinct-wide approach and ‘clustering” institutions to maximise their impact and the benefit to their communities, region and the country.  In MOTAT’s case, this means aligning the museum’s, the Zoo’s and Iwi focus and approach to develop the Western Springs precinct into a unique, inspiring and sustainable experience that attracts visitors from around New Zealand and abroad.

“Bold, creative and aspirational leadership is required from both Council and central government to realise how Aotearoa’s first scientific, environmentally challenging, biologically diverse and culturally significant visitor experience might be possible.”

Like many, MOTAT has felt the pinch that tighter funding pursestrings have brought. Frawley is diplomatic in his approach to the topic.

“MOTAT’s primary source of funding is from the Auckland Council in accordance with the provisions of the MOTAT Act.  The museum is aware of the significant financial pressure on the Council, so it has kept its request to a minimum, but this means that the funding it receives does not cover the rate of inflation and the funding is not sufficient to progress its building renewal programme and the renewal of its tramway, which services the Western Springs and is one of our visitors’ favourite experiences.”

Leadership lessons

When asked what advice he’d have for anyone who aspires to be a leader in the arts and cultural sector, Frawley succinctly identified a top ten hit list:

  1. Develop a clear vision and the steps that need to be taken to achieve it
  2. Communicate clearly and constantly
  3. Foster inclusivity and diversity
  4. Support and empower others and provide them with the support and encouragement to do likewise
  5. Build strong relationships and networks
  6. Financial acumen is a must
  7. Enhance your skills
  8. Stay informed and be adaptable to change
  9. Advocate for the sector
  10. Be resilient and maintain your sense of humour


As for Frawley’s next steps, “To quote Liam Neeson in Taken, I ‘…have a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career’ and I would like to use these skills to help those that are looking to change their strategy and culture or to identify and manage risk.”