Ex-mayor takes sides on gallery

FORMER Newcastle lord mayor John Tate has weighed into the art gallery quarrel, disputing his successor Jeff McCloy’s account of events and backing gallery director Ron Ramsey.

Cr Tate, who said he had deliberately stayed out of public debates since standing down from the council in September last year, said he was speaking out for those who could not do so themselves, including Mr Ramsey.

His wife Cathy was more of a gallery buff than he, but he knew many of the people involved and also stood by the chairman of the gallery’s fund-raising foundation, Dr Rob Henderson, who had clashed with Cr McCloy repeatedly over the gallery, Cr Tate said.

As the  Newcastle Herald reported yesterday, a question in State Parliament asked by Labor MLC Peter Primrose lifted the lid on an issue that had simmered for nearly three years, after Cr McCloy’s company, McCloy Group, proposed a public art program to the council in January 2011.

Cr McCloy has confirmed he was unhappy with the way  the gallery and the council dealt with his desire to donate a $50,000 artwork to the city.

But he denies the saga had any impact on the restructure of council senior management, which includes a shake-up at the top of the gallery.

He has justified the decision not to proceed with the gallery expansion, saying the council has more pressing financial concerns at the moment.

But Mr Tate said the decision not to proceed with the expansion, together with the plan to merge the management of the gallery with Newcastle Museum, effectively ‘‘trashed the gallery’’.

‘‘Every incoming council has to consider its structure and you have to consider the advice of the general manager. I accept that, but the gallery director is such a specialised and important job that it should not have been lumped in with a restructure of the council’s senior management team,’’ Mr Tate said.

‘‘First they’re not going to expand the gallery, then they virtually chuck the director out. How much more do you have to do to trash the place?’’

Cr McCloy has also criticised the previous council and the gallery over a blowout in its costs, which he said went from $21million to at least $28.7million and probably higher.

But Mr Tate said at least some of the extra costs were ‘‘loaded into the gallery expansion’’ from the program to overhaul Laman Street.

The basic $21-million program involved a three-way funding split between the council and the state and federal governments, but Mr Tate said the council had enough money to fund $14million of the cost.

He said the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal  had granted the council a permanent 5per cent rate levy that was supposed to go towards ‘‘nine or 10 capital works programs, of which the gallery was No.1’’.

Cr Tate also said he believed the council’s financial position was ‘‘not as bad as is now being made out’’.

Responding to Mr Tate’s comments, Cr McCloy said: ‘‘‘It’s not appropriate for me to comment on Mr Tate’s time as lord mayor.

‘‘As current lord mayor, I stand by the decisions the current council has made after careful consideration and due process.’’

In a letter to the then arts minister, Simon Crean, in March this year, Cr McCloy listed his financial objections to the art gallery project, which he said was only at ‘‘sketch plan’’ stage despite 10 years’ work and more than $2million in spending.

‘‘My experience as a property developer lets me know the art gallery ... plans have been handled badly,’’ Cr McCloy wrote.

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