Regional Galleries in NSW – alive and well


It’s more often I hear about the crisis enveloping art criticism than the one John McDonald claims is chewing away at regional galleries. In decrying the current state of some local government run public galleries in NSW (Regional Galleries in Crisis – issue 40 Artist Profile) John McDonald reminds me that not only is more and better critical writing required (he can’t carry that gig alone), a more considered overview of the contribution local councils have made to regional galleries deserves to be aired.

And what a contribution it has been. Almost without fail, community focussed regional and public galleries in NSW have been created through the drive and energy of communities they serve. Local councils have maintained the vision, they’ve grown the investment and in partnership with State Government support, New South Wales (NSW) enjoys a comprehensive network of galleries dedicated to supporting art, artists and audiences.

As McDonald suggests, it’s not always plain sailing. A focus on management practices and clawed back efficiencies can cause a council to lose sight of why it has a gallery. Certainly counterproductive decisions have been made, and I agree that it’s misguided in terms of administration and programming to think everything in the cultural bucket is somehow the same. Libraries, museums, galleries and theatres are different. They involve different skill sets and knowledge. They have different audiences. Their ways of working are not the same. In particular, the DNA of galleries demands the personality of leadership and it’s always sad (but not terminal) when that necessary element of success is sidelined through restructure.

Unfortunately though, by eulogising Coffs Harbour’s Eutick Memorial Still Life Award (EMSLA) and the enterprising work of former staff as victims, rehashing old events at Newcastle and incorrectly throwing darts at Grafton, it’s my opinion that McDonald dwells unhelpfully.

NSW Regional Galleries are not in crisis, just as Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery staff are not librarians, when they are in fact highly regarded museum and gallery professionals. Over time, programs and places change. Sometimes they need to change. While leadership is important, it’s also necessary that vision, energy and audiences are renewed and not corralled or contained.

In an adventurous move, building on the undoubted success of EMSLA, Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery reimagined their art prize. The National Still Life Award was another bright idea. Far from being pretentious and hypothetical, it attracted 610 entries, will feature 62 finalists and increased prizemoney of $25,000.

Lisa Slade, from the Art Gallery of South Australia will judge and local car dealer Todd Blewitt has increased Coffs Coast Mercedes Benz support. New sponsors, including Slater & Gordon, Saso Creative and Moving Art have come on board for what promises to be an impressive exhibition, built on the foundations of EMSLA.

In June 2016, Coffs Harbour Council resolved to commence planning for a new regional gallery facility to be part of a wider cultural and civic space in the Coffs Harbour CBD.

Similarly, Clarence Valley Council is looking to grow Grafton Regional Gallery, undertake a re-development and negotiate a long term MOU with the energetic Gallery Foundation. To ensure support over the long term a new business plan has been commissioned. A decision to slash Grafton’s budget by 50% was never taken.

Yes, Newcastle City Council did seem to lose direction when it sacked the gallery director in a restructure that also killed off a much needed capital redevelopment (and a museum director). But the energy of Newcastle Art Gallery has begun to re-emerge from that poisonous cloud. Who knows, following the recent council election exciting things might just be around the corner.

My regional gallery involvement, over some 30 years, has mainly been at close range as director of three, Tamworth, Mosman and Hazelhurst, in Sydney’s southern suburbs. These days it’s more an overview, with my role at Museums & Galleries of NSW adding to my knowledge and access to the sector.

I feel confident in the view that NSW regional galleries are as spirited as they’ve ever been. Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre along with MAMA and Maitland, Lismore, Bega, Orange, Goulburn, Bathurst, Lake Macquarie, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Broken Hill, Tamworth, Mosman, Campbelltown, Hazelhurst, Katoomba, Manly and many others, are lively and well subscribed. Importantly, under the arm of local government, they continue to serve and support artists, curate ambitious exhibitions, challenge and enthuse audiences, add to and care for their collections, educate and stimulate children and promote social cohesion. In many instances they become the centre of their communities.

It might be considered by some to be a rosy view of things, but I can’t go past the long term commitment that local government, in partnership with the NSW Government, has delivered state-wide.

For many, it’s a commitment that’s become an obligation, and it’s to be applauded.