Gallery stalls but hope remains

THE Newcastle Art Gallery redevelopment has been formally shelved by city councillors, a decision that effectively puts the future of the $21million expansion in the hands of the state and federal governments.

Newcastle City Council voted narrowly – seven to six – to rescind its support for the project.

The entire redevelopment is now in jeopardy, but a last-minute compromise could provide some hope for disappointed gallery supporters who packed the council chambers on Tuesday night.

A ‘‘leadership group’’, including lord mayor Jeff McCloy and local MPs Sharon Grierson and Tim Owen, will meet next week to seek ways to push ahead with the redevelopment.

‘‘We need to take a breather,’’ Cr McCloy said. ‘‘But the leadership group is a responsible solution, in the spirit of trying to keep this thing alive’’.

To salvage the project, the leadership group will have to walk a funding tightrope – trying to shore up a $7million federal grant while at the same time seeking a matching contribution from the state government.

Ms Grierson said after Monday night’s meeting  the council decision had put federal funding at risk.

‘‘I’m still very concerned that this money will be lost unless there is a formalised intent to deliver the $21million project and an urgent meeting held with [Premier] Barry O’Farrell.’’

In the Hunter on Monday, Mr O’Farrell said the state ‘‘[didn’t] have the money at the present time’’.

Cr McCloy has agreed to lead a delegation to Sydney to meet with Mr O’Farrell in the hope of securing a funding commitment.

The motion passed by councillors states that, ‘‘if the state government agrees to provide funding, a report is to come back to council to consider the recommencement of the project’’.

Hundreds of art gallery supporters packed into the council chambers and an overflow room where they watched debate on a video screen.

Afterwards, art gallery foundation chairman Robert Henderson expressed his disappointment.

‘‘This appears to wind back the redevelopment project, which has been in the planning stages for nearly 10 years,’’  he  said.

Dr Henderson will be part of the leadership group, which will be led by respected NSW Industrial Relations Commission deputy president Rodney Harrison.

‘‘I am heartened by the lord mayor’s commitment to be part of a leadership group and I am looking forward to working with all levels of government to get the best outcome for the gallery,’’ he said.

‘‘I am quietly confident that we will get the redevelopment.’’

Financial arguments dominated debate within the council chamber.

The rescission motion was passed by Cr McCloy, fellow independents Andrea Rufo and Allan Robinson, and Liberal councillors.

Cr Brad Luke (Liberal) said the council was not in a financial position to commit to large capital expenditure.

‘‘We’re debating whether or not the gallery goes ahead with the expansion ... at the same time as plans are being put that will result in redundancies throughout the organisation,’’ Cr Luke said.

Labor and Greens councillors put the case for the gallery works to proceed.

Cr Tim Crakanthorp (Labor) said the decision effectively threw away more than $9million in grants and promised public donations.

He also raised concern about the future of other council projects.

‘‘If we stop now, we stop on all projects: we stop on Blackbutt, we stop on coastal revitalisation, we stop on CBD renewal.’’ Cr Crakanthorp said.

‘‘If we’re going to stop on the art gallery we need to stop all those.’’

Council general manager Ken Gouldthorp said the council risked being put into administration.

 ‘‘Before taking on any very large capital projects that run a further risk of blowout in expenditure we need to get our own house in order.’’

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