Let­ter of re­ply: Michael Rolfe replies to John McDon­ald on the cri­sis in re­gional gal­leries


The CEO of Mu­se­ums and Gal­leries of NSW, Michael Rolfe, replies to John McDon­ald’s opinion piece on the cri­sis in NSW gal­leries, which fea­tured in the pre­vi­ous is­sue of ARTIST PRO­FILE. IT’S MORE OF­TEN I HEAR ABOUT the cri­sis en­velop­ing art crit­i­cism than the one John McDon­ald claims is chew­ing away at re­gional gal­leries. In de­cry­ing the cur­rent state of some lo­cal-gov­ern­ment-run pub­lic gal­leries in NSW ( Re­gional Gal­leries in Cri­sis – Artist Pro­file 40) John McDon­ald re­minds me that not only is more and bet­ter crit­i­cal writ­ing re­quired (he can’t carry that gig alone), a more con­sid­ered over­view of the con­tri­bu­tion lo­cal coun­cils have made to re­gional gal­leries de­serves to be aired. And what a con­tri­bu­tion it has been. Al­most with­out fail, com­mu­nity-fo­cused re­gional and pub­lic gal­leries in NSW have been cre­ated through the drive and en­ergy of the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. Lo­cal coun­cils have main­tained the vi­sion, they’ve grown the in­vest­ment and, in part­ner­ship with state gov­ern­ment sup­port, NSW en­joys a com­pre­hen­sive net­work of gal­leries ded­i­cated to sup­port­ing art, artists and au­di­ences. As McDon­ald sug­gests, it’s not al­ways plain sail­ing. A fo­cus on man­age­ment prac­tices and clawed-back ef­fi­cien­cies can cause a coun­cil to lose sight of why it has a gallery. Cer­tainly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive de­ci­sions have been made, and I agree that it’s mis­guided in terms of ad­min­is­tra­tion and pro­gram­ming to think ev­ery­thing in the cul­tural bucket is some­how the same. Li­braries, mu­se­ums, gal­leries and the­atres are dif­fer­ent. They in­volve dif­fer­ent skill sets and knowl­edge. They have dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. Their ways of work­ing are not the same. In par­tic­u­lar, the DNA of gal­leries de­mands the per­son­al­ity of lead­er­ship and it’s al­ways sad (but not ter­mi­nal) when that nec­es­sary el­e­ment of suc­cess is side­lined through re­struc­ture. Un­for­tu­nately though, by eu­lo­gis­ing Coffs Har­bour’s Eutick Me­mo­rial Still Life Award (EMSLA) and the en­ter­pris­ing work of for­mer staff as vic­tims, re­hash­ing old events at New­cas­tle and in­cor­rectly throw­ing darts at Grafton, it’s my opinion that McDon­ald dwells un­help­fully. NSW re­gional gal­leries are not in cri­sis, just as Coffs Har­bour Re­gional Gallery staff are not li­brar­i­ans, when they are in fact highly re­garded mu­seum and gallery pro­fes­sion­als. Over time, pro­grams and places change. Some­times they need to change. While lead­er­ship is im­por­tant, it’s also nec­es­sary that vi­sion, en­ergy and au­di­ences are re­newed and not cor­ralled or con­tained. In an ad­ven­tur­ous move, build­ing on the un­doubted suc­cess of EMSLA, Coffs Har­bour Re­gional Gallery reimag­ined its art prize. The Na­tional Still Life Award was an­other bright idea. Far from be­ing pre­ten­tious and hy­po­thet­i­cal, it at­tracted 610 en­tries, will fea­ture 62 fi­nal­ists and in­creased prize money of $25,000. Lisa Slade, from the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, will judge, and lo­cal car dealer Todd Ble­witt has in­creased Mercedes-Benz Coffs Coast’s sup­port. New spon­sors, in­clud­ing Slater & Gor­don, Saso Cre­ative and Mov­ing Art have come on board for what prom­ises to be an im­pres­sive ex­hi­bi­tion, built on the foun­da­tions of EMSLA. In June 2016, Coffs Har­bour Coun­cil re­solved to com­mence plan­ning for a new re­gional gallery fa­cil­ity to be part of a wider cul­tural and civic space in the Coffs Har­bour CBD. Sim­i­larly, Clarence Val­ley Coun­cil is looking to grow Grafton Re­gional Gallery, un­der­take a re­de­vel­op­ment and ne­go­ti­ate a long-term mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with the en­er­getic Gallery Foun­da­tion. To en­sure sup­port over the long term a new busi­ness plan has been com­mis­sioned. A de­ci­sion to slash Grafton’s bud­get by 50 per cent was never taken. Yes, New­cas­tle City Coun­cil did seem to lose di­rec­tion when it sacked the gallery di­rec­tor in a re­struc­ture that also killed off a much­needed cap­i­tal re­de­vel­op­ment (and a mu­seum di­rec­tor). But the en­ergy of New­cas­tle Art Gallery has be­gun to re-emerge from that poi­sonous cloud. Who knows, fol­low­ing the re­cent coun­cil elec­tion ex­cit­ing things might just be around the cor­ner. My re­gional gallery in­volve­ment, over some 30 years, has mainly been at close range as di­rec­tor of three, Tam­worth, Mos­man and Hazel­hurst, in Syd­ney’s south. These days it’s more an over­view, with my role at Mu­se­ums and Gal­leries of NSW adding to my knowl­edge and ac­cess to the sec­tor. I feel con­fi­dent in the view that NSW re­gional gal­leries are as spir­ited as they’ve ever been. Tweed Re­gional Gallery and Mar­garet Ol­ley Art Cen­tre along with MAMA and Mait­land, Lis­more, Bega, Orange, Goul­burn, Bathurst, Lake Mac­quarie, Western Plains Cul­tural Cen­tre, Bro­ken Hill, Tam­worth, Mos­man, Camp­bell­town, Hazel­hurst, Ka­toomba, Manly and many oth­ers are lively and well sub­scribed. Im­por­tantly, un­der the arm of lo­cal gov­ern­ment, they con­tinue to serve and sup­port artists, cu­rate am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tions, chal­lenge and en­thuse au­di­ences, add to and care for their col­lec­tions, ed­u­cate and stim­u­late chil­dren and pro­mote so­cial co­he­sion. In many in­stances they be­come the cen­tre of their com­mu­ni­ties. It might be con­sid­ered by some to be a rosy view of things, but I can’t go past the long-term com­mit­ment that lo­cal gov­ern­ment, in part­ner­ship with the NSW Gov­ern­ment, has de­liv­ered state-wide. For many, it’s a com­mit­ment that’s be­come an obli­ga­tion, and it’s to be ap­plauded.

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