Newcastle Art Gallery redevelopment given new hope thanks to Arts Minister Don Harwin

INTERESTED: New NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin. PICTURE: Ben Rushton

INTERESTED: New NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin. PICTURE: Ben Rushton

ARTS minister Don Harwin has breathed fresh hope into long-frustrated plans for the redevelopment of the Newcastle Art Gallery, saying he wants to hear more about the council’s ideas for the project.

Mr Harwin, who was given the portfolio in Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s first cabinet reshuffle, has about $250 million left in cultural infrastructure funding to spend of the $600 million the government promised from the sale of electricity assets before the 2015 election.

So far most of that money has been spent in Sydney – including $202 million to the Sydney Opera House and $139 million to the Walsh Bay precinct – but Mr Harwin, who has said he will make an announcement about funding before the June budget, has cited Western Sydney and regional NSW as “high priorities” for future allocations

Those comments haven’t gone unnoticed in Newcastle, and at last week’s council meeting the Lord Mayor, Nuatali Nelmes, moved a motion to reiterate the council’s commitment to the project and seek a meeting with Mr Harwin to “investigate opportunities for joint support” for the redevelopment.

While not committing to the project, Mr Harwin told the Newcastle Herald he was keen to listen to the council’s ideas.

“I would be interested to hear more on council’s proposal for the gallery’s redevelopment and would welcome the opportunity to discuss what role both the Newcastle City Council and the NSW Government could play in the success of the [Art Gallery],” he said.

The Newcastle Art Gallery.

The Newcastle Art Gallery.

“My office has reached out to the [council] to discuss this.”

A redeveloped art gallery has been a council policy since at least 2004, with the estimated cost of the project ranging between $21 and $30 million.

The council and federal government previously committed $7 million each to the project, but a combination of the state government’s refusal to come to provide funding and council decisions during former Lord Mayor Jeff McCloy’s tumultuous reign, saw the project fall over in 2013.

Four years later the federal money is gone, but Cr Nelmes believes that if the state government commits $20 million to the project it could become a reality.

“Given amount of money in the government’s cultural infrastructure fund, my hope is that when the new minister sees the gallery proposal he would consider contributing significant funding,” she said.

“This redevelopment is not fancy trimmings, it’s work to make sure our city’s assets are maintained properly.

“All we would be asking for is the capital funds to fix the gallery building and the storage facilities.”

The art gallery redevelopment became front and centre in the political tussle over control of the council when the independent Mr McCloy took over as mayor in 2012.

The state government under former Barry O’Farrell did not commit funding, and while mayor Mr McCloy controversially suggested the gallery should sell some of its collection – valued at more than $80 million – to fund the redevelopment.

The former lord mayor also led a decision to spend the $7 million the council had set aside to fund it to pay down debt. 

That decision meant the former federal government pulled the $7 million it had promised for the project, spending most of it on the Glendale Interchange instead.

But Cr Nelmes said the council still had money to allocate to the project, through the 2012 special rate variation and asset renewal funding.

“The art gallery still has a backlog of asset renewal works in our long term financial plan [and] the state’s component would cover the new capital works,” she said.

Mr Harwin defended the government’s contribution to arts in the Hunter, saying it spent money in the region through the Arts and Cultural Development Program, Screen NSW and public library funding.

“Over three years from 2015/16 the NSW Government has committed arts funding at a minimum of over $1.6 million to support a range of programs and projects in the Hunter region, which includes the Newcastle Art Gallery,” he said.

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