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MOTU Beachfront Art Villas: Inside the Pacific’s first art resort

MOTU is more than just a perfect slice of heaven: the resort is a living testament to the owners’ passion for Pasifika art, with the luxury villas showcasing works from top artists. This healing place is also a natural extension of their interest in philanthropy, with profits from a trust going towards improving the lives of the local community.

MOTU Beachfront Art Villas: Inside the Pacific’s first art resort

John Dunn may be a surgeon, but he understands that helping humans to mend extends beyond medicine. “I really think art and healing go together,” he says, having observed the positive effects of installing artworks for patients to contemplate in his hospital in Auckland. It’s part of the reason he and his wife Rose have made art a focus at their resort in the Cook Islands, MOTU Beachfront Art Villas. “And quite often when people go on holiday, it’s a healing time, too,” he says.

The Dunns bought the property in Rarotonga four years ago when it was named Royale Takitumu. By that time the resort was almost 20 years old and was beginning to show its age. John and Rose have carried out an extensive refurbishment and renamed the resort MOTU, meaning ‘island’. Situated on the shores of the Titikaveka lagoon, the adults-only resort comprises 10 self-contained villas fitted out with designer and handcrafted Pacific furnishings and showcasing artworks from renowned Pacific artists. John, who is a Cook Islander through his great-great-grandmother, has been operating in Rarotonga for 15 years. During this time, he and Rose have formed a strong emotional attachment to the island. “We have fallen in love with it more and more, so we thought it would be great to have a place there,” says John. “We were looking for a house but accidentally bought a resort!”

ESCAPE TO PARADISE

Nestled within tropical gardens, the property was a perfect piece of paradise for the Dunns. “It’s a small, beautiful, quiet sanctuary of a place,” says Rose. As a place that naturally lends itself to peaceful contemplation, it made sense for the Dunns to turn the villas into an art resort. “Rose especially has a passion for art, particularly Pasifika art, and she’s a patron of a lot of artists, so we thought, let’s make the first boutique art resort in the Pacific,” says John.

They have 12 Pasifika artists represented at the resort, which includes the likes of Michel Tuffery, Fatu Feu’u, Brent Holley and Sylvia Marsters. “I’ve known the artists before we owned the property just from being interested in art,” says Rose. “Whenever John’s gone up to do surgery or we’ve gone up for a holiday, I’ve visited the artists and there’s a great gallery up there called Bergman Gallery run by a guy called Ben Bergman who is now a great friend, and he represents local artists, so that’s how I learned who’s up there and what they were doing.”

One of the most memorable pieces is a large, eye-catching sculpture by respected Samoan artist Feu’u, ‘To’a Savili’, which stands out the front of the resort. Feu’u also donated 11 prints of his work to the resort, one per villa (including John and Rose’s own villa). The Dunns have had a long-held passion for the arts; in addition to Rose’s sponsorship and mentorship of a number of artists, she and John are patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery and the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust. “We have been interested in art for about 30 years now, and we found ourselves drawn to Māori and Pasifika artists,” says Rose. John says their support of the arts is very much a “give-and-take relationship”. “It all sounds very philanthropic, but we get a hell of a lot out of it – we’ve gained great knowledge and friendships,” he says. Rose agrees that it’s a highly fulfilling aspect of her life. “It feeds my soul, my connection with art and artists,” she says. “It’s your mind food!” says John.

MOTU builds upon John and Rose’s philanthropy, and not just by supporting local artists. The resort has been established as a trust, with the profits to go towards the local community through initiatives in healthcare, education and the arts. “What started out as a passion project has turned into a more pragmatic project, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive,” says John.

The Dunns are relieved that the resumption of two-way travel means they are able to finally get back to the place that they love and also that they can welcome visitors to MOTU once more. “We love the contact with the guests,” says Rose. “If we’re up there, we’ll have drinks with them on the beach at sunset about once a week, and that’s fun to meet the people.”

They’re very much looking forward to sharing their home away from home with as many people as possible. “It’s got the most stunning tropical gardens and green lawns, and the villas are beautiful – I’ve painted them all white, we’ve got bright art on the walls and accent colours of emerald green and black in the furnishings, and it’s just a gorgeous place,” enthuses Rose. “People love it when they discover it.”

Photograph by Babiche Martens

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