EDITORIAL: Unhappy gallery exhibit

NEWCASTLE City Council is making a serious spectacle of itself over the city’s art gallery.

The council’s policies and actions have been blamed for the loss of some important bequests and donations, and this week’s suspension of gallery director Ron Ramsey and his line manager Judy Jaeger seems set to polarise opinions still further.

For months, a running battle between gallery supporters and some elements of the council leadership has been making headlines, with the gallery backers the losers at every turn so far.

A major revamp of the gallery – not so long ago an important plank in plans to revitalise the city – was surprisingly sidelined when the NSW government opted not to stump up its one-third share of the required cash.

New lord mayor Jeff McCloy had made it obvious from the start of his term that he wasn’t enamoured of the gallery upgrade plan, and this newspaper has commented before on the apparently poor relationship between the lord mayor and the gallery director.

In April Mr Ramsey and other gallery staff were banned from addressing a meeting on the redevelopment, with some councillors accusing them of lobbying.

Last month, Labor MLC Peter Primrose asked in parliament whether the lord mayor’s seeming animosity could be traced to 2011, when a public art proposal he put appeared to meet resistance from the gallery. The lord mayor denied the suggestion, but the question didn’t help mend any fences.

More recently, the council approved a management restructure that would eliminate the gallery director role, replacing it with a cultural facilities manager who would be responsible for the gallery, the regional museum and possibly the Civic Theatre.

This has brought protests from gallery supporters, some of whom have suggested the proposal seems unfair to Mr Ramsey.

Now Mr Ramsey is off work – along with Ms Jaeger – apparently on full pay, while an investigation apparently takes place into some unspecified matter. Councillors have been told not to comment, and staff are refusing to speak.

Extraordinarily, not even the general manager of the council is willing to shed light on the apparent suspensions or investigation, leaving a vacuum that citizens will fill with their own speculations.

This, many would agree, is no way to run a city. The lack of transparency and information on a matter of deep interest, concerning a vital cultural facility with a tumultuous recent history, is regrettable and, some would argue, ill-advised.

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