Arts dispute rears its head after Labor question

A LABOR question in State Parliament lifted the lid on a three-year dispute behind the scenes between Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy and Newcastle Art Gallery director Ron Ramsey and his supporters.  

Cr McCloy said the dispute over his company’s funding of public art in Newcastle had nothing to do with opposition to the gallery’s expansion or a restructure of the council’s senior management that could possibly cost Mr Ramsay his job. 

But Cr McCloy was unhappy with a range of matters involving the gallery, just as a number of key people involved with the gallery were displeased with him.

The question was lodged last week in the upper house by MLC Peter Primrose in his role as a ‘‘duty MP’’ covering the Liberal-held Newcastle electorate for the Labor opposition.

‘‘Was the decision not to fund a third of the cost of the extensions to the Newcastle Art Gallery influenced by concerns expressed by the lord mayor Jeff McCloy, arising from a personal taxation issue?’’ Mr Primrose asked the Minister for the Hunter, Mike Gallacher.

Cr McCloy said yesterday he wasn’t sure what Mr Primrose was referring to, but the ‘‘taxation issue’’ mentioned by Mr Primrose could refer to the tax deductibility of donations for public art.

Correspondence viewed by the Newcastle Herald shows a public  art proposal from McCloy Group went to the council in January 2011, with the group  describing progress as ‘‘unsatisfactory’’ when Cr McCloy announced he would  stand for lord mayor in  2012.

Elected to the job in September 2012, Cr McCloy was soon expressing doubts about the gallery redevelopment proposal – initially proposing a move to the former Hunter Street post office – and then questioning the timing of the $21million expansion on financial viability grounds.

‘‘My position has always been that it was not financially responsible for council to continue with the redevelopment project as proposed while ever council’s finances were in their current state,’’ Cr McCloy said yesterday.

The McCloy’s Group’s ‘‘public art partnerships’’ were revealed in the Herald in December 2011, with an article encouraging other businesses to donate money to the cause.

Cr McCloy said he had always wanted a say in what McCloy Group’s $50,000 donation for public art was being spent on.  He confirmed the donation was tax deductible, but said that the motive in donating was to revitalise Newcastle with a community project.

‘‘I’ve still got to make donations from profits,’’ Cr McCloy said.

He said the resultant work, Hook, Line and Sinker, was eventually installed at Honeysuckle.

But he had since turned to Newcastle TAFE to produce further sculptures, which it had done in ‘‘three months rather than two years’’.

Rob Henderson, who chairs the gallery’s fund-raising foundation, said donation laws meant the gallery and not the donor had the major say in what the money was spent on.

Cr McCloy said he was still enthusiastic about public art and said the gallery lacked meaningful connection with working Newcastle artists, a statement Dr Henderson disputed.

 “They’ve called me a philistine, but they have no idea,’’ Cr McCloy said yesterday. 

‘‘I come back to Newcastle after travelling internationally and I want us to have the sort of big public art pieces you see in other great cities around the world.’’

Cr McCloy said regardless of any concerns he had over the gallery, the council restructure had not been used to potentially push Mr Ramsey out of his job.

 He said it would have been unfair to other council managers to leave the gallery director’s job out of the cost-cutting restructure.

He said the restructure had been devised by council general manager Ken Gouldthorp.

Cr McCloy said he had no more notice of the changes than any other councillor and he left the detail of the restructure to the general manager, who was ‘‘the expert’’ in that area.

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