By KIERAN FINNANE
For almost 50 years the Alice Springs Art Foundation and the Central Australian Art Society have been building an art collection of national scope. They donated it to the Alice Springs Town Council, to be held on behalf of the community. Now the council wants to get rid of it.
It costs council $85,000 annually to pay for the collection’s safekeeping in professional art storage conditions at the Araluen Arts Centre where it is regularly sourced for exhibitions. The council would rather someone else picks up this tab and want to hand over responsibility to the NT Government.
“There’s no urgency attached to the discussions,” says CEO Rex Mooney (in the centre of the photo above) . “Council is very, very aware that these are assets that belong to the community.”
But should we be reassured? Ultimately the fate of the collection will be settled by the elected members of council, and how “aware” are they? On Saturday not one of them turned up to a morning tea at Araluen, to which they were specifically invited. The only council representative to attend was Mr Mooney.
Had councillors come, they would have seen a beautifully hung exhibition of works from the collection, titled Figure and Ground. Filling Gallery Three and the Sitzler Gallery, it represents about one tenth of the holdings.
It is curated by Stephen Williamson (speaking in the gallery on Saturday, right)) around two fundamental and recurring themes in the works: the figure, pushed in new directions and explored in different media, including HD video; and ground, comprising landscape painting in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal modes, and the very surface of the canvas in abstract works.
Councillors would further have been able to enjoy this experience in the company of constituents for whom art is a passion and who give generously of their time and talents, year in, year out, to help maintain Alice Springs’ reputation in this domain.
For reputation it does have. The Art Foundation’s core activity is to stage the Alice Prize, which attracts entries from around the country, including from the Territory’s major artists, and judges from Australia’s leading art institutions. These reputed artists and art professionals recognise the worth of the prize, the collection it nourishes, and the creative culture in the nation’s desert heartland. All this apparently passes by the notice of our elected representatives. (It is understood that Mayor Damien Ryan was out of town.)
President of the Alice Springs Art Foundation (ASAF), Ruth Elvin, says the foundation’s concern is that relinquishing ownership to the NT Government could see the collection’s integrity eroded. What would be the guarantee that the collection would remain intact in Alice Springs? she asks. And would ASAF continue to be able to acquire works for the collection?
Left: Ruth Elvin with director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Dr Michael Brand, judge of this year’s Alice Prize.
The now biennial Alice Prize has a purse of $25,000, which acquires the winning work (from a selected field of 60 plus). ASAF also acquires other works from the exhibition, using funds from the carefully invested Tammy Kingsley bequest. It costs about $75,000 to stage the show, which is sourced from a mix of own funds, fund-raising and sponsorship.
Other valuable works were acquired over the years from the Central Australian Art Society’s Caltex/NT Art Award. They include one of the most important works of Aboriginal art held locally – Gulgardi by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa. This iconic work won the award in 1971, right at the beginning of the Western Desert art movement.
The Caltex/NT Art Award eventually became the Advocate Art Award, which is no longer acquisitive, leaving the ASAF as the main source for growing council’s collection. Council’s own budget line for art acquisitions has shrunk from $5000 to a paltry $2000.
Ms Elvin says council has proposed that it write to the NT Government about it accepting the gift of its collection with a covenant, guaranteeing that it remains in Alice Springs and that the ASAF be allowed to continue to add to it.
She says the ASAF is not overly confident of the strength of such a covenant into the future. It is also very disappointed that the council does not see maintenance of its art assets on a level with maintenance of its sports facilities, for example. The ASAF has been told that art is not core business for council, while ovals are.
Ms Elvin says it has been suggested in discussions that the $85,000 currently spent on the collection, could be re-allocated towards community arts grants.
Meanwhile, she says it has not escaped ASAF’s attention that council recently did not hesitate to spend $75,000 on the installation of the John McDouall Stuart statue, and will add to this expenditure with its erection of a fence between the statue and the road. All this while it baulks at its modest commitment to maintaining its own art collection, held on behalf of the community.
Council’s attitude is in contrast to that of other regional councils. Ms Elvin says Shepparton, Bendigo, Ballarat and Albury councils all invest considerable amounts in art prizes and galleries, recognising the prestige they bring to their communities and the attractions they represent for visitors.
Go figure – Town Council wants to give away its art collection
By KIERAN FINNANE