OPINION: Poor decisions could destroy our heritage

AFTER six weeks abroad, mainly in France and Japan, I have returned to Newcastle buoyed by the rich cultural heritage of these countries.

My state of euphoria was soon shattered by the reports on the insidious destruction of the Newcastle Art Gallery, including the removal of the director’s position.

 It is possibly unwise to compare the artistic values of the old world with those of Australia, but my European friends have always held an admiration for the originality and unencumbered character of our cultural institutions.  

So why are ill-informed decisions diminishing the worth of these pursuits?

The view that ‘‘high art’’ is elitist and removed from ‘‘ordinary people’’ (a view held by former federal Labor Party leader Mark Latham and commented on by Sydney Opera House Trust chairman Kim Williams) debases education and cultural endeavours. 

 Today’s leaders, fearful of upsetting the electorate by championing cultural activities, seek  praise through advancing sport and popular spectacles, such as the naval fleet show on Sydney Harbour recently. 

This narrow approach is far removed from the vision and support of the arts that was integral to the Keating, Hawke and Whitlam eras.

To return to our own art gallery and its shameful treatment:  at the end of World War II, the people of Newcastle built the War Memorial Cultural Centre, the aim of which was to provide a catalyst for the provision of cultural facilities comparable with Sydney.

The foundation stone for the visionary undertaking was laid in 1949, and a major component was a modest art gallery.

  From its beginning, the centre was both inspiring and controversial – the qualities epitomised in the imposing bronze figures of sculptor Lyndon Dadswell.

 The two figures, strategically placed in the foyer, gaze up at an inscription that says: “In minds ennobled here, the noble dead shall live”.  A hope for the future to the youth emerging from war.  

For more than half a century, the vision of our forebears has seen the growth of music, art and literature.

  The conservatorium has grown from operating in prefabs in Civic Park, via the Cultural Centre, to a faculty of music at the university. The library has grown so that it now occupies the entire War Memorial Cultural building, and the art gallery escaped from the top floor into its own free-standing building in 1977.

The growth of the art gallery is attributable to the skill of the various directors (Gil Docking, David Thomas, Nick Mitchevitz and currently Ron Ramsey), the active participation of the community through the Gallery Society  and the foundation, and of course the support of Newcastle City Council.

 Through its position as one of the finest regional collections, the gallery has brought distinction and economic benefits to the city.

  One also needs to recognise the value  (aesthetically and financially) of the many bequests – Anne von Bertouch, Bill Bowmore, Roland Pope and others.

This belief in the gallery and its contribution to the city could not be better illustrated than by the efforts that have been put in over the past 10 years to expand the gallery to cater for its growth.  

Creative forces don’t stand still, and with vision the gallery’s contribution to the vitality of Newcastle can continue to be expanded.

It does seem unbelievable that our current councillors and the state government can ignore the value and  achievements of Newcastle Art Gallery and negate the spirit of our  forebears as illustrated in the birth of the War Memorial Cultural Centre.

There are many issues of concern in our city which the council is bound to deal with, but it is foolish and irresponsible to solve all of these at the expense of the creative disciplines. 

 We owe it to future generations to honour the spirit and vision that established the War Memorial Cultural Centre in 1957.

If Newcastle council’s present course continues, the inscription on the entablature of the War Memorial Cultural Centre would have to change to: “Ignorance is not innocence but sin.’’

Architect Brian Suters is a former president of Newcastle Art Gallery Society and a former chairman of the Newcastle Historic Reserve Trust.

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