Cliff Whiting was raised in Te Kaha, Bay of Plenty, where he lived until enrolling at Wellington Teachers’ College in 1955. Whiting spent his final year of study in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, training to become a specialist in the arts.
In the 1960s, Whiting and other young Māori artists were invited by Gordon Tovey, the national arts and crafts adviser, to participate in a series of courses with Ngāti Porou arts, including tohunga whakairo (master carver) Pineāmine Taiapa. Under Taiapa’s guidance, Whiting began restoring and building marae. Over the next 50 years, he would develop a kaupapa Māori approach to heritage preservation, with a focus on community and whakapapa, restoring and building marae around the country.
Whiting held a number of significant governance roles, including on the Council for Māori and Pacific Arts, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, and the Historic Places Trust. In 1995, he was appointed the first kaihautū (Māori leader) of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.