OPINION: Newcastle gallery furore is a missed chance to rise above the ordinary

GARY Ellem, Jessica Sullivan and Jeff Julian asked the people of Newcastle, "So what kind of iconic projects can we build into the redevelopment to enhance the city as being connected and creative?" ("City's reinvention offers scope for radical ideas" Herald 12/4), and the answer seems to point to mediocrity.

As history can show, most damage is done by those who exhibit mediocrity, and I fear the hallowed halls of Newcastle City council are displaying ample evidence of this now.

Newcastle has had the honour to have been served by one of the most dignified art gallery directors over the past six years. We have seen the gallery's collection under the directorship of Ron Ramsey, now sacked, almost double in value.

We have seen the foundation's fortunes in his time stronger than ever before, and we have, through the former director's extensive international network, seen Black Totem 11, proudly set in our city for everyone to enjoy.

A gift from Wendy Whiteley to the Newcastle Art Gallery and therefore a gift to the City of Newcastle, and recognised as one of Brett Whiteley's finest sculptures.

This world-class sculpture has cost council and the ratepayers of Newcastle nothing. Not a bean. The city's fathers, for reasons better known to them, have missed a golden opportunity to advance Newcastle's place as a creative city on the international stage within that broad spectrum of culture, education, tourism and business.

Having attended the public forum recently at City Hall to hear speakers discuss Newcastle in Transition, it was with sadness I realised that an opportunity to kick-start the transition with a fully costed project had been lost.

And worse still, to hear a senior council employee declare Newcastle as a village and one difficult to imagine as a university town. It confirmed to many on the night that some people in City Hall just don't seem to get it.

Richard Florida, the pre-eminent thinker and writer, examines creativity and its effects on economic development in cities such as Newcastle and stresses the elements that attract creative young people. High on his list are a vibrant cafe culture, efficient affordable transport, sporting facilities, theatres and a quality cultural facility such as what our art gallery redevelopment represents.

The gallery redevelopment is a $21 million construction fully costed to the last bolt and door handle. With $7 million given to the project from the federal government, $1 million from private donors raised over the past 10 years, $6 million from reserves set aside by the previous two councils, and finally $7 million to come from a special IPART rate increase if the state did not contribute. Everything was in place.

So what do we have now? We have an elephant in the room, eminating from the sandstone ediface and roundhouse in King Street that has caused havoc with its every move in recent times.

For reasons unclear, the citizens of Newcastle have witnessed what seems to be a pursuit against key personnel in council that apparently cost ratepayers in excess of $100,000 without, in my opinion, really producing any objective evidence of wrongdoing by the targets - a fine future cities director and an admired art gallery professional.

We are witness to what I believe is one of the greatest travesties of justice in Newcastle's history.

There is no suggestion that this council has done anything mendacious.

Wheeling and dealing is apparent in government at all levels; it is the current Australian paradigm.

Too many in this city that gave support at the last election to the current council now see its crown slowly slipping.

Peter Frost is a member of the Newcastle Art Gallery Society committee.

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