A community’s fight saves Grafton Regional Gallery

Gina Fairley

Facing a 50% cut in its budget, and its operations in jeopardy, a regional community has fought against big government to hold its place.
A community’s fight saves Grafton Regional Gallery

Image via Shutterstock.

The Clarence Valley Council (CVC) called an extraordinary meeting at the end of last week, ahead of previous meeting scheduled for Tuesday 27 June 2017: a crisis response to community outcry over the Council’s intention to cut the budget of the Grafton Regional Gallery by 50%.

The proposed cut would remove approximately $300,000 from the Gallery's 2018/19 budget, and was proposed in order to meet the NSW State Government's 'Fit for the Future' requirements.

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At the meeting, Councillors voted 7 to 1 against the cuts, slated in the media as ‘organisation suicide’, demonstrating that they had listened to the community and valued this local asset.

CEO of Museums & Galleries NSW, Michael Rolfe had told The Daily Examiner that the cuts would have likely caused the Gallery to lose its regional status, leading to the loss of further funding from the State Government and sponsors.

Rolfe said to local media: ‘Reading Council's view that gallery funding was equivalent to a $20 cost for each visitor raised some concerns. Most people would understand the entity offers more to the community through its outreach programs and support for the Aboriginal community.’

He added: ‘The gallery provides benefits to the whole community even if they don't actually visit. It's the same with things like a swimming pool or a cricket oval. Not everyone uses them, but they provide value to the community.’

Prior to the extraordinary meeting, Rolfe met with Clarence Valley Mayor Jim Simmons and acting general manager Ashley Lindsay for talks on alternatives to the cuts.

Coupled with a huge community swell opposed to the cuts, the proposed alternatives seem to have been accepted.

Mayor Simmons said on the reversed cut proposal: ‘The community certainly let us know their thoughts with both barrels, and from a lot of shotguns.

‘There will be changes to the way the gallery operates but it would be highly unlikely that the gallery would suffer the cuts proposed in council's forward planning documents … While the gallery budget is safe, it was time the gallery business model is revamped – Council purchased the gallery in the 1980's; no business would expect to go that long without reviewing its operations.’

He added that Council will be looking at a revised model of operational costs for the Gallery moving forward, to ensure its future efficiency.

Dropping numbers cited 

Mayor Simmons had cited a drop in visitor numbers to the gallery as an apparent cause for concern, leading to the considered budget cut.

‘A business would not see that without trying to do something about it,’ he told local media.

Previous management of the gallery’s café had apparently affected visitor numbers – dropping from 54,000 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2014.

Rochelle Summerville, Chair and member of the Clarence Valley Cultural Committee, said: ‘The council needs to take a lot of the blame for the reduced numbers it is using to justify its position.  It should be the one rectifying its many errors of mismanagement, the best example of which is the debacle over the café/ restaurant.  The other example is last year’s round of funding cuts where the gallery lost a staff position.  This cut is showing in the quality of exhibitions and the ability of staff to manage the ever-increasing demands to achieve funding support for quality exhibitions. … Professional skilled staffing knowledge is essential to running a top class regional gallery.’

Summerfiled told ArtsHub that the “turnaround” will now see revenues from the café and shop retained by the gallery, and the gallery will be able to re-employ a curator.  

With visitation today in excess of 35,000 per year, a national reputation through its flagship biennial prize the Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award (JADA) – which promotes innovation and excellence in contemporary Australian drawing – and a strong balance of expert staff, volunteers and an active Foundation, Council has reassessed the value of the gallery.

Artist and curator Todd Fuller, who has been in residence at the gallery and a strong advocate in the recent campaign to save it, has criticised the Council for not acknowledging that value earlier.

‘One of the problems facing Grafton Regional Gallery is that Clarence Valley Council does not seem to understand is that this is not simply a local issue, but an issue that affects the NSW Regional Art Sector and the National Drawing community,’ he said.

Fuller said of the news of a 7-to-1 voted turnaround: ‘This is a really great outcome and I, alongside other artists of the Clarence Valley and abroad, applaud the Clarence Valley Council for listening to their community. We look forward to seeing the results of the gallery review and the continuation of the great work by Grafton Regional Gallery.’

Rod Watters, from the Grafton Regional Gallery Foundation, told ArtsHub that the decision was welcomed, adding that ‘the donors would [have] obviously looked elsewhere’ had the cut gone ahead as planned. 

People Power; Photo Rochelle Summerfield

Securing a creative future for Grafton

Grafton Regional Gallery's recent struggle is indicative of the fate of many small galleries that are at the mercy of the State Government's 'Fit for the Future' plan, handed down through Council efficiency measures.

In this case, lobbying within the community and the regional arts sector saved Grafton Gallery, but it echoes a wider national epidemic caused by quick fix efficiency solutions that fail to recognise the long term benefits – both social and economic – which cultural venues offer communities.

Watters said on this topic: ‘Local governments have no clue that a Gallery is just not a "cost centre", but should be positioned as an "economic driver”’. He added that perhaps regional galleries need to do a better job at marketing themselves to government stakeholders.

For Grafton to grow – both economically and socially – it is essential for healthy destination attractions such as the Gallery to build that local story. Organisations like Create NSW, MGNSW and NAVA work diligently and deliberately in building networks and professional practice in regional centres, and trying to shift the spotlight away from our city successes.

Grafton Regional Gallery has proved their ambition worthy.

The Gallery houses two internationally-acclaimed collections, the Lindt and Ken Done collections; has supported Indigenous artists as a major force for reconciliation in the Clarence Valley; operates public programs and education programs, and had built a strong Foundation with significant private benefactors contributing upwards of $100,000 per year.

Fuller wrote in a letter to the editor of The Daily Examiner on the eve of a Public Meeting last week: ‘From a public relations perspective, it seems like an act of organisation suicide to repeatedly slash the funds of an institution which is a flagship for the positive work of the Clarence Valley Council and for Grafton itself.’

Clearly, Clarence Valley Council listened to Fuller and the many others who fought to maintain a quality of life and learning in regional NSW.

www.graftongallery.nsw.gov.au

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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