Bruce Walker (right) with Peter Renehan, chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, native title holder and son of Doris Stuart, Mparntwe apmereke-artweye. Photo from our archive.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
A thorough-going proposal to “re-set” the debate on the national Aboriginal art gallery argues for putting to one side the divisive issue of location in favour of more clearly defining the project’s purpose.
If this is well understood and supported, a location will suggest itself.
So says Bruce Walker in a contribution to the government’s consultation process.
Dr Walker is a long-time local. He founded and headed up the Centre for Appropriate Technology, an Aboriginal organisation, for 32 years. He chairs Ekistica Pty Ltd, an Alice Springs based energy and engineering consultancy currently managing projects worth $600m in Australia, South East Asia and New Guinea.
His intervention comes as the NT Government seems immovable about building the gallery, which aspires to attract international tourists, in the ANZAC Oval precinct.
Dr Walker says the gallery should be in the CBD: “At least two possible site options can meet all of the site analysis criteria established by government.”
He says he will not make public these options as this would distract from what needs to come first – community agreement on the purpose.
Dr Walker says over the past six weeks he has spoken to a large number of Aboriginal groups and people, business organisations and community leaders, and has based his submission on the results of these discussions.
He presented his summary to his sources and has found broad acceptance of his arguments.
“The critical importance of this paper is to create an alignment of purpose that necessitates an intense dialogue with Aboriginal elders and custodians who can speak for the Central Business area of the town in the first instance.
“There also needs to be an engagement within the wider community that will reset relationships necessary to sustain an investment of this scale in the town. This requires community leadership.
“If we can achieve this the site will become obvious.”
Dr Walker takes as a starting point the government’s vision of “Alice Springs – Australia’s Inland Capital”. The gallery’s purpose therefore is “to establish Aboriginal culture, history, art and expression as the primary heart and soul of the Inland Capital of Australia”.
To get there the project needs to:-
- Have authority and legitimacy of Aboriginal people locally and nationally.
- Reflect the world’s oldest continuous living culture.
- Speak to pre-settlement, and the past, present and future of settlement across the nation.
- Ensure that all Aboriginal cultures and nations are embraced by local Arrernte and included. The project is considered a national centre in the Heart of the Nation. A place where the nations songlines meet.
- Imagine the nation and its needs in 50 years.
- Attract a sustainable number of national and international visitors to stimulate a thriving local economy.
- Have a singularly spectacular iconic structure; a built form that is compelling in its own right, in a unique location that unites, inspires and excites all. It needs to stand out internationally.
- Be at the heart of the inland capital (at the very centre of town physically, socially and spiritually).
The project would need to be underpinned by the following principles:-
- Art and Culture are inseparable – they are expressions of the history and the future of Aboriginal people.
- Aboriginal Art and Culture cannot be appropriated without consent.
- Art without provenance is worthless – the back story creates the value.
- A response with international significance has to be authentic and legitimate for Aboriginal people and they should be at the heart of the governance of such a project.
- Consultation with only one option available is more about convincing than consulting – it focuses on problems and barriers rather than opportunities and possibilities.
- Consultation around location in the absence of an aligned purpose is inconclusive.
- Public consultation about theoretical constructs when the final form is not known is likely to reinforce the status quo and promote conservative responses to exciting opportunities.
- Nothing has ever been changed by agreeing with the status quo – the general population are followers of change not initiators of change.
- In this instance it is leadership alongside consultation that is required to stimulate change.
Dr Walker says in the current situation a significant number of people remain uncertain about Anzac Oval.
“While there is a sense of inevitability about Anzac Hill there is not an overwhelming community sense that we have the right location.
“There are significant flow on costs in terms of demolition and relocation of sporting facilities. This still leaves a site impaired by a number of legacy structures that limit the design potential.
“We can do better. There is an appetite for some different options.”
He says some local Aboriginal people feel neglected in the consultation so far and more generally feel they are not considered in the future development of the Inland capital.
“There is a feeling among some Aboriginal people that the government, tourism and general economic interests are just appropriating their art and culture for the benefit of businesses rather than having their interests at heart.
“It appears that the purposes of a number of groups are not aligned sufficiently to proceed with confidence,” says Dr Walker.
“Aboriginal people express views regarding some of their ancient protocols and other social and cultural aspects of such a project which they believe have not been considered and if they were considered they could add value to the visitor experience of Alice Springs. For example, protocols regarding the entry of visitors through the Gap.
“The suggestion by Aboriginal people that the Indigenous cultural centre, and by implication the Indigenous art gallery, should be south of The Gap is a direct response to these concerns that have not yet been heard.
“The Desert Park appears to be too far out of the CBD to achieve the purpose of the investment and the centrality of Aboriginal Art and Culture to the concept of the Inland capital.
“The national Aboriginal art gallery is a once in a lifetime opportunity to advance Alice Springs, to restore its national and international significance and unify and reconcile the Aboriginal past with the shared future. It is worth getting it right.
“It is therefore important to widen the context of any further consultation to allow the community support that we believe will be there once all have been heard and the most inspiring location is identified.”