OPINION: Art gallery  vital to  city renewal

NEWCASTLE Art Gallery has the best regional art collection in Australia. It should be a source of civic pride, a magnet for cultural tourism and the centrepiece of the Urban Renewal Strategy.

Instead, we have a typical Newcastle wrangle that generates a lot of heat and is achieving nothing. Can we sidestep the blame game and forge a new consensus for the good of the city? I believe so.

Newcastle must be the only city in the world to have an Urban Renewal Strategy that ignores culture and the arts. This is weird because the experience of cities around the world and around Australia is that culture and the arts are the best way to put a city on the map and attract a steady stream of visitors.

Newcastle certainly does not lack artists and creative people. We've punched above our weight in the arts, just as much as in sport. The perennial problems are lack of funds and lack of suitable arts and performance spaces.

The gallery, its collection and its staff are a valuable cultural resource just across from Hunter Street, the prime target of the renewal strategy. Yet the gallery itself appears vague as to how it should engage with the community as opposed to looking outwards to the world at large. Newcastle City Council seems reluctant to invest in and follow through with an imaginative cultural strategy.

Here are five options:

1. Close the gallery and sell the collection. This would maximise short-term value for the council but make Newcastle the laughing stock of Australia and possibly face legal challenge.

2. Downgrade the gallery to a bare-bones exhibition space, minimise staff for curatorship and public education, charge for entry. Arguably this is the direction of current policy. It would end the gallery's standing as a national cultural institution, terminate significant bequests and contribute nothing to urban renewal.

3. Transfer the building and collection to the Art Gallery of NSW. This would preserve the collection in public hands but might not be welcomed by the NSW gallery, which is struggling to fund its own extensions.

4. Re-establish the gallery as an independent regional gallery. This would recognise the gallery's regional importance but probably encounter resistance from other galleries in the Hunter and beyond in competition for scarce arts funding dollars.

5. Re-establish the gallery as an autonomous institution with a clear mandate, revised structure, wider funding options and community support. The gallery and council can readily do this if they can be brought back together in goodwill and negotiate a new consensus to the benefit of the city. It would be entirely consistent with the revitalisation of Civic Park/Square led by Newcastle NOW with inspiration from international architect Jan Gehl.

The two viable options look to be No. 2 (aim small) and No. 5 (aim big). No. 2 is the default option; No. 5 needs a lot of work but offers a much bigger pay-off.

A revitalised gallery needs a clear mandate, a role in urban renewal (attract out-of-town visitors) and community development (support local arts and arts education).

A revitalised gallery needs autonomy to ensure its professional credibility and insulate it from council politics.

It needs a structure. Like the Art Gallery of NSW, an autonomous Newcastle gallery needs to differentiate a board of trustees (strategy, budget and appointment of director), a foundation (fund-raising) and a society (members, friends and volunteers).

It needs diversification of funding with clear distinction between current and capital budgets. Current budget involves council recurrent funding, one-off competitive grants and self-generated revenues (special exhibitions, merchandise, catering); capital budget funds building works and acquisitions.

Corporate philanthropy must play a bigger role.

The building will suffice if the gallery is downgraded but needs extension and reconfiguration if its mandate is to play a bigger role.

It needs to be more welcoming as a destination and meeting place with a good cafe, gift shop, teaching space and children's play area.

It needs more space for revenue- and visitor-generating special exhibitions, and more space for display of the permanent collection.

Capital funding must look beyond a financially struggling council. Sale of the Port of Newcastle provides the perfect opportunity to fund extensions with top-up from the federal government. Fit-out might in part be funded by corporate philanthropy (the coal industry).

Where do we start? Wipe the slate clean. The council and the foundation need to come together and identify a small working group to report on how the gallery might best be reconstituted to play a leading role in the city's renewal.

Howard Dick is conjoint professor in the faculty of business and law at the University of Newcastle.

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