Sustainability comes to NERAM

Margaret Olley, The Yellow Room Triptych, 2007

Estate of Margaret Olley, to be acquired by The Howard Hinton Collection. Photo: courtesy of NERAM.

Some might say it’s been a long time coming. But looking around New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) tells you that sustainability has been a serious pursuit for the art museum.

NERAM met with dark times in the early 2000s when the local council made a bid to resolve financial affairs by selling off the valuable Hinton Collection. It’s a familiar enough tale–Newcastle Council suggested something similar last year–but Armidale’s story resulted in a court case when unhappy constituents objected to the proposal that the family jewels be ‘sold off’. Control of the gallery’s direction was eventually handed back to the community and warnings issued to the council against its unwarranted interference in the operation of the organisation.

Since then, NERAM has moved slowly but surely towards being sustainable in its own right. Care and development of its already muscly collection is paramount to continued viability, and in steering towards a sustainable future nothing has escaped inspection. The daily operating budget, overheads, staffing, the exhibition and program budget have all been closely scrutinised. Changes have been made to reduce electricity costs, adopt low energy lighting and to generally sit lightly on its land.

The challenge of reducing a carbon footprint while increasing a community footprint is no mean feat and requires inspired direction, vision, a dedicated audience and a robust fundraising arm.

To that end, NERAM generates more than half the museum’s annual budget through its commercial activity of exhibitions, its retail outlet, membership, individual donations, Friends of NERAM and the support of philanthropics such as the Margaret Olley Trust. NERAM is home to the Packsaddlers–one of the more adventurous fundraising schemes operating in regional galleries today. The Packsaddlers are a group of dedicated locals who intrinsically understand their audience and work on the premise that the New England community is fundamentally interested in Australian contemporary art and are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. They buy and sell work of contemporary and emerging artists from around Australia on commission during their annual fundraising event. It’s a bold strategy which results in a vibrant one day event that brings significant funding into NERAM as well as a frenzy of art buying activity in the local area.

The challenge of reducing a carbon footprint while increasing a community footprint is no mean feat and requires inspired direction, vision, a dedicated audience and a robust fundraising arm.

Packsaddle Fundraisers raise money predominantly for acquisitions and to date have put money towards more than 50 acquisitions for the permanent collection. The Friends of NERAM is also a mainstay of support and were instrumental in reaching the funding for The Yellow Room Triptych by Margaret Olley. 

The theme of sustainability is also apparent in NERAM’s suite of exhibitions; two of their current shows Capturing Flora, and Echoes in the Hedgerows both express the gallery’s, and the community’s, close connection, interest and understanding of the natural environment. These shows follow on from two others earlier in the year–the Sheltering Tree by the Print Circle and SMART Tree (Science meets Art) which also addressed the natural environment in some way.

NERAM is taking a global look at the sustainability issue and is securing its own long-term existence finincially, organisationally and through a dynamic environmentally focused exhibtion program.

If you haven’t been there lately, get along to see what sustainability in an art museum looks like!

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