Ratepayers hit by heavy art gallery subsidy

RATEPAYERS spend $38 for every visitor to walk into the Newcastle Art Gallery, according to figures from the gallery’s operational budget.

The hefty subsidy was cited as a key justification for the gallery’s $21million development, which planned to include income-generating measures to make the cultural hub more sustainable.

But, as the Newcastle Herald  revealed yesterday, some of those aspects have been stripped from gallery plans after the redevelopment budget was bungled.

Draft operating budgets for the redeveloped gallery show that proceeding with a ‘‘four star’’ design, which does not include function space or a proposed commercial tenancy, will cost the city in the long run.

The cut-price plans would mean the gallery misses out on $220,000 a year compared to the initial ‘‘five star’’ plans as it cannot generate income from function hire, leasing commercial space or catering commissions.

The budgets show the four star gallery will lose $2.24million when operational in 2014-15, and estimates each visitor will be subsidised by $14.93.

Despite the ability to generate income, the original plans are still predicted to leave the gallery about $2million in the red in 2014-15, meaning each visitor would cost ratepayers $13.48.

The current subsidy is $38.07 per visit.

Those figures assume annual attendances will increase from about 60,000 this year to more than 150,000  on completion.

The council has proposed entry fees as a way of recovering some of the cost and helping to balance the city’s ailing budget, but these are not likely to make a significant dent in the level of subsidy.

Lord mayor Jeff McCloy, who described the gallery redevelopment as a ‘‘total disaster’’ this week, said the extent of the subsidy was unfair on ratepayers.

Cr McCloy said half of the people to visit the gallery went five times or more.

‘‘That means half of visitors are getting a $200 a person subsidy and kids are paying loads to go to a swimming pool.’’

Stephen Clarke from the Save Mayfield Swimming Pool Group said the council needed a more consistent approach to subsidising public facilities.

He said free entry to pools could double pool attendances and provide significant benefits for the community.

‘‘We don’t want to see ourselves in competition with cultural facilities,’’ Mr Clarke said.

The art gallery’s collection is the city’s most valuable asset, including many pieces donated to the city by the art fraternity.

The redevelopment project has received a $7million federal grant, the council has committed $7million from its reserves and public donations, and will have to spend another $7million if a state infrastructure grant application is unsuccessful.

Councillors said this week they would move to take the management of the gallery redevelopment out of the hands of staff, and ongoing issues with the project could pose a problem for general manager Phil Pearce.

Mr Pearce’s contract includes a key performance indicator that he ‘‘ensure that the art gallery proceeds according to the adopted project plan and that a governance framework is in place’’.

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