Australia’s leading artists have rallied around the National Gallery of Australia, warning a permanent fix is needed to the financial troubles besetting the institution responsible for the country’s $6.9 billion art collection.
Arts Minister Tony Burke described the funding crisis confronting national cultural institutions as “horrific” after this masthead published images taken inside the National Gallery showing buckets and towels arranged to mop up leaks that have plagued the gallery since the late 1990s.
Cressida Campbell: The structure of the NGA building needs constant upkeep because mostly the objects held within can never be replaced.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Burke said it was a challenge to find the money needed to rectify the NGA’s leaky roof amid an operational funding squeeze that is also affecting the National Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of Australian Democracy, as well as other parts of the budget.
“The situation of the gallery and most of the collecting institutions actually is horrific,” he told ABC Radio.
“Big decisions have to be taken where we’re getting close to being able to announce that. But effectively, for all of these institutions, they’re facing a funding cliff, and it’s not the only part of the budget where this is happening. And it’s a real challenge.”
Sydney artist Cressida Campbell, whose blockbuster survey exhibition at the NGA wrapped up last month, said the gallery housed a particularly important and beautiful Indigenous collection that most international visitors would never have the opportunity to see anywhere else, beyond works in other state galleries.
National Gallery staff have been forced to use towels to prevent water damage in the building.
“The National Gallery is important for Australians and visitors to understand the beauty and power of our cultural past and present.
“To enable us to hold the treasures safely inside the building and display them inspiringly – the structure of the building needs constant upkeep because mostly the objects held within can never be replaced.”
Like most key cultural institutions underspending on necessary capital works has left the NGA grappling with a $265 million maintenance backlog while public sector-wide efficiency dividend savings have affected its programs and operations.
John Olsen, regarded as one of Australia’s greatest living artists, expressed puzzlement that the NGA was still grappling with leaks to its roof, more than 30 years after it was brought to the attention of the board on which he had sat between 1990 and 1993.
Olsen at an exhibition of his landscape works in Melbourne in 2016.Credit:Joe Armao
“The running of the gallery is really knowing it has a secure funding future,” he said. “It comes down to the construction of finance. You’ve simply got to have it.”
Architect Col Madigan designed the building on Lake Burley Griffin, and it was officially opened in 1982. It won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Canberra Medallion the same year and is listed on Australia’s Register of the National Estate.
“The leaking roof is going to cost a lot of money,” Olsen said. “Do you realise that when I was on the board, they had the same trouble? It came down to the point that the building is so wrongly scaled that the floor-to-ceiling ratios make Blue poles look like a postage stamp, and that had to be fixed.
“At the time we thought it would be better to pull this great building down, which of course you can’t. The roof is going to cost a lot of money, but it must be found. Of course, it must be fixed. Finance must be forward looking.”
Patricia Piccinini in her Collingwood studio. Credit:Eddie Jim
Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini said the NGA had been transformative to her artistic practice and deserved secure funding.
“One of the pivotal and salient moments of my life was the day I walked into the National Gallery of Australia. I was in Year 8 and one day I didn’t want to go to school. I just kept on walking and I ended up at the national gallery, and that’s where I stopped. For me, it was kind of a spiritual experience.
“This seemed like a world of ideas, a world of possibilities. I didn’t know what the art world was, I didn’t know who made those pictures, I just knew I wanted to be part of it.”
The NGA commissioned Piccinini’s Skywhale and Skywhalepapa, monumental sculptures in the shape of a hot air balloon, embraced by the Australian public.
“If you live in a house, and it’s leaking, you just fix it,” she said.
“This is our cultural identity at stake, of course, the gallery has to be fixed. How on earth do we go forward as a nation, and face challenges like climate change, if we don’t have a place for mindful reflection on who we are?
“We are an evolving country, we need to figure out how we relate to each other and how we can rejoice in each other. To me, that is the NGA. It’s a no-brainer.”
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