Regional Galleries in Crisis

John McDonald decries the trend in New South Wales regional art galleries, where some local councils have tried to reduce costs by cutting back on professional staff, a crisis that is amounting to “a humiliating return to amateurism”.

Ten years ago, Leigh Summers, the enterprising director of the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, had the bright idea of starting an art prize. She decided on still-life as a theme, and found a generous sponsor in Dr Mal Eutick, the head of a pharmaceuticals company. The Prize was called EMSLA – the Eutick Memorial Still Life Award – in honour of Mal’s parents.

Rather than rest on her laurels, Summers found other sponsors as well, notably Todd Blewitt, a successful local car dealer. She decided that EMSLA should be the catalyst for a mini arts festival, and set about bringing leading musicians, artists and writers to Coffs. Elena Kats-Chernin, arguably Australia’s foremost living composer, came up year after year, giving performances of small piano pieces she would write in response to paintings in the show. Simon Tedeschi, Les Murray, Vincent Fantauzzo, and many other notables all took part in the EMSLA celebrations. It was a popular event, and created huge goodwill for the gallery.

Summers dared to dream that one day the Council would build a bigger and better gallery, where she could hold even more ambitious shows. It never happened. Instead, in 2015, the Coffs Harbour Council decided, in the interests of greater efficiencies, to put the gallery and other institutions under the jurisdiction of a cultural services manager. Their hard-working director was effectively sacked, being given the option of staying on as curator at a much reduced salary. The Council dispensed with other professional gallery staff, effectively replacing them with librarians. There was very little option but to walk away.

Within the year the new team had decided to do away with EMSLA, and rebrand it as the National Still Life Award. Mal Eutick was informed that the show had been canned, and invited to become a sponsor of the new award. He declined the honour and has decided to take EMSLA elsewhere. Summers was informed that the new award would dispense with her music festival and other popular initiatives.

I’ll spare you further details, but the entire affair can only be described as a masterpiece of ingratitude and insensitivity. A unique and successful regional event has been erased in favour of a pretentious, hypothetical replacement. Long-term sponsors and supporters have been alienated. An elaborate proposal for the new exhibition, due to kick off in late 2018, includes a long list of “benefits” for potential sponsors that would be considered courtesies in anyone else’s language.

Perhaps the most depressing part of this tale is that it is only one part of a much more alarming picture of decline in the regional galleries of New South Wales. I once held up Grafton as a shining example of council support for a regional gallery, in contrast to the indifference of Coffs Harbour. But earlier this year the Grafton Council decided to slash the local gallery’s budget by 50 per cent – a move that would have dire consequences for gallery programs and exhibitions. The cuts are still being contested and debated.

Over the past couple of years I’ve received letters and emails about Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Broken Hill and Newcastle, and other local galleries are being cut back or, in cases such as Cessnock, wound up.

If we try to work out where the trouble began, we might look to Port Macquarie in 2008, where the building of a cultural centre called the Glasshouse brought about the dismissal of the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council. A project, which was expected to cost less than $8 million, had run up a bill of $41.7 million, and rising. When gallery director Sharni Lloyd retired, it was decided that her position would
be abolished. Henceforth the Glasshouse would be under the administration of a cultural services manager, working with a curator.

Since then, we have watched Broken Hill – the state’s oldest regional gallery (b. 1904) – go down the same path, although the appointment of a new Gallery and Museum Manager, Tara Callaghan, suggests that sanity is returning to the Silver City.

Most alarming of all was the debacle in Newcastle, the biggest and most important regional collection in the state, if not Australia. At a time when the gallery was thriving under director, Ron Ramsey, Newcastle’s property-developer mayor, Jeff McCloy, decided to launch an investigation into the purchase of a Brett Whiteley sculpture that would ultimately lead nowhere. In the process, Ramsey was treated like a criminal and sent home on full pay. The position of gallery director would be abolished, and the gallery put under the auspices of a general manager.

Even today, long after Mayor McCloy resigned following a very public encounter with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Newcastle has yet to reappoint a director, with Lauretta Morton acting in the neither-nor position of gallery manager.

Because these galleries remain open, with curators still attempting to organise exhibitions, councils seem to believe it’s possible to do without a director, save on the salary, and carry on as usual. But a gallery without a director is like a ship without a captain. It suggests that no professional expertise is required to run an art gallery, which may as well be staffed by volunteers or librarians.

One has only to look at the way Coffs Harbour was running under Leigh Summers, or Newcastle under Ron Ramsey, to see how much ground has been lost. Not to mention how much community support, private and corporate sponsorship has been squandered.

Although there are galleries such as Maitland, Tweed and Albury, which have never been stronger than they are today, most regional institutions are vulnerable to the kind of restructuring that has done so much damage already. What we are witnessing is a humiliating return to amateurism. After expending so much time and so many resources raising their regional galleries to a high level of professionalism, the town councils of New South Wales are throwing everything away.

No one expects the average councillor to be a lover of the arts, but it’s quite another thing to inflict one’s personal philistinism upon an entire community, ignoring all the evidence that a well-run regional gallery acts as a tourist attraction and a powerful force for social cohesion.

Instead, in the face of impending amalgamations, councils have scrambled to show the state government how lean and efficient they are. They have done this by targeting cultural institutions as a soft option for spending cuts – shaving a fraction off their budgets by trashing the very soul of a community.

Image: Artist Badger Bates at the opening of his solo show, Movements, at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery.

Courtesy Broken Hill City Council