OPINION: Focus must be firmly on art gallery's future

THE ground is shaky in the art world and it feels contagious.

Artists' boycotts over Transfield's sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney and federal Arts Minister George Brandis's threat to withhold funding to artists who refuse corporate funding on ethical grounds are just one example.

In Adelaide, a showdown is looming over the Songlines Aboriginal art project at the South Australian Museum, causing anxiety to several senior artists.

And last Monday night, while many supporters of Newcastle Art Gallery were meeting at city hall, ABC's Four Corners aired its revelatory program on unsound acquisitions at the Art Gallery of NSW and the $5 million stolen dancing Shiva purchased by the National Gallery of Australia under Ron Radford's directorship.

Mr Radford, who is about to retire, is a longtime mentor and colleague of Ron Ramsey and will be remembered for his many professional achievements at the National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of South Australia.

Likewise, due credit must be given to Mr Ramsey, who has overseen some excellent projects and acquisitions as director of Newcastle Art Gallery. But we should not labour the point: our focus should be on Newcastle Art Gallery's future.

I attended Monday's meeting of around 300 people, all deeply concerned about our cultural flagship. But it was not a meeting so much as a rally in support of Mr Ramsey and Wendy Whiteley, which was obviously cathartic for many.

Neither was it a discussion on the gallery's future: it was a look back in anger, some justified, about the breakdown of due process between Newcastle City Council and Newcastle Art Gallery.

While we are yet to see the full picture emerge, we should all be galvanising in support of a new management model for the gallery.

At the risk of sounding like an idealist, an idiot, or both, my hunch is that Newcastle City Council will reappoint key staff to Newcastle Art Gallery and Newcastle Museum.

The gallery is down by two senior positions (since assistant gallery director Tristan Sharp's resignation last month), and a full-time assistant curator recently departed. There was also an attrition of talented casual staff under the previous management.

With the national arts community's eyes fixed on Newcastle, it would be foolhardy for Newcastle City Council to do anything less than advertise for suitably qualified and experienced visual arts professionals with genuine art world connections who can, through excellent arts programming, increase the gallery's profile across the country.

We have bad press to undo.

The recently advertised cultural director's position has grand ambitions and may duplicate some of Judy Jaeger's previous role, but all evidence suggests generic-style "managerialism" is ineffectual in delivering specialist arts programs across diverse organisations.

It is not humanly sustainable nor logistically possible. The cultural director's position can only be effective if it works closely with key staff on the gallery floor and, in theory, its board. However, Newcastle Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in regional NSW, has no board.

It might be high time to establish one, in line with other major galleries.

A thoughtfully appointed board of trustees would include professional expertise drawn from diverse representatives of the community (that is, legal, arts, scholarship, business).

Such appointments are not status titles, but rather they ensure a professional mediatory role between the gallery and council, and protect the integrity of the gallery's charter.

Acquisition committees and other sub-committees may be appointed to protect against conflicts of interest and manage ethical issues. The extraordinary efforts of the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation in raising funds should be applauded, as should the dedication of the gallery society.

However, any changing of the guard depends on the participation of the wider community.

Goodwill towards existing Newcastle Art Gallery staff is very important. There are genuine efforts being made to present a dynamic exhibition schedule with public and education programs aimed at a broad audience.

Local artists should have a consistent presence via engagement with Newcastle Art Gallery curators who can develop thought-provoking exhibitions reflecting local histories and identities.

Digitising the collection should be prioritised, along with new ways of reinterpreting the collection through adventurous curatorial approaches and touring exhibitions.

As for Brett Whiteley's Black Totem II, it is doing what public art has always done: silently provoking scandal, one way or another, while outliving its supporters and its critics. Margel Hinder's now much-loved fountain did the same in 1966.

How perfect if her iconic sculpture became the threshold between Civic Park and the gallery. I still hold a candle to the idea of Newcastle Art Gallery expanding into the library, with Lyndon Dadswell's figures and the granite atrium creating a link with history and an eye to the future.

Una Rey is an artist and freelance writer who lectures in art history at the University of Newcastle.

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