Newcastle gallery crisis defies belief: critic

The following is an excerpt from an October 26 review in the Sydney Morning Herald about the recent Darnell Collection show at Newcastle Art Gallery by art critic John McDonald.

IT'S distressing that every time I've written about Newcastle this year the exhibition has had to share column space with some new crisis. The only progress is that these crises keep getting worse, with the latest developments being almost unbelievable.

At a meeting on September 24, the council voted to adopt a controversial restructure proposed by general manager, Ken Gouldthorp, that will abolish the position of director of the Newcastle Art Gallery and install a "cultural facilities manager" who will take charge of the gallery, the Newcastle Museum and possibly the Civic Theatre.

This is the kind of drastic measure normally brought about by catastrophic mismanagement or financial meltdown. Yet Newcastle, by common agreement, is one of the best-managed galleries in the country. It has an excellent director in Ron Ramsey, who has brought in a succession of valuable bequests and donations, the latest being an $850,000 Brett Whiteley sculpture, donated by the artist's widow, Wendy. The gallery also has a strong group of friends and supporters who have raised the $40,000 required to bring the sculpture to Newcastle.

Newcastle's property developer mayor, Jeff McCloy, has already distinguished himself by suggesting the gallery raise money by selling its artworks. Apparently the council can't afford to pay for renovation, although it has millions to spend on a rearrangement of Laman Street in front of the gallery, which has been going on for months.

There are also funds for the beautification of Hunter Street, which may benefit properties and businesses on that unlovely thoroughfare, but shouldn't take priority over the gallery, which is a facility to be enjoyed by every citizen and every tourist.

The proposal to abolish the position of director was narrowly approved at a confidential session of the council. Councillors opposed to the changes said they weren't given sufficient time to review the plan, copies of which were returned to the council at the end of the meeting to prevent its leaking. The restructure is an act of consummate brutality that will take one of the leading regional galleries in the country and turn it into a major embarrassment.

Many directors treated in this manner would be ready to man the barricades, but Ron Ramsey has met this humiliating scenario with extraordinary courtesy and discretion. He will get another job, and Newcastle will lose a popular and highly effective director. One expects that bequests and donations will drop to zero, while exhibitions will be dealt with in perfunctory fashion.

A gallery on the scale of Newcastle with no director is not so very different to a large vessel without a captain, or perhaps a city without a mayor.

Those who wish to visit the Newcastle Art Gallery before it disappears beneath the waves will be impressed by the exhibition, After Five: Fashion from the Darnell Collection. This show was originally put together for the Hazlehurst Regional Gallery earlier this year, and has been slightly reworked for the Newcastle season. As usual, a great deal of thought has been put into the hang, which has been one of the features of Ron Ramsey's directorship.

(The Darnell show closed on November 10.)

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