Define gallery purpose before picking a site: Bruce Walker



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. 

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.”


  1. I still do not understand how this one building is going to make our little town the inland CAPITAL.
    What has this man gunna do done for our town?
    Nothing, and he is listening to interstaters who do not live here.
    Be honest the only thing Chief Minister Adam Giles did for Alice with roads was to put money aside for Santa Teresa.
    Where did that money disappear to?
    I drove on the road when contractors started construction which all of a sudden STOPPED.
    My suggestion is, build both the ART and CULTURAL centres on the grounds of the Appropriate Technology centre to have the tourist all in one place.
    These people are worried about their money. IT’S ALL THERE.

  2. “Art without provenance is worthless” is a strong statement. Some of the world’s greatest works of art are by “Anonymous”.

  3. Marina Strocchi, I agree with you.
    Personally I have an artifact from Africa with no authentication, and Aboriginal artifacts done especially from me by different artists (I had not even asked their names).
    It was Ngapartji Ngapartji.
    That the way it was before the commercialisation of arts and crafts.
    “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.” And they are in majority correct.
    “Be at the heart of the inland capital (at the very centre of town physically, socially and spiritually)”.
    Does the CBD fit the criteria?

  4. On the one hand Dr Walker says: “There also needs to be an engagement … that will reset relationships necessary. This requires community leadership. If we can achieve this the site will become obvious.”
    On the other hand he is touting two sites in the CBD.
    On the one hand he speaks of having authority and legitimacy of Aboriginal people locally and nationally, and on the other he appears to be denying them the authority to speak on the appropriate site.
    How does he resolve these contradictions?
    Dr Walker is known to be keen on redeveloping the Uniting Church block in the CBD, a proposal which so far has been stymied. Is this paper a ploy to propose the site for a gallery?
    Yes, we need to go back to the starting. Where is the national endorsement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the proposal for a national Indigenous art gallery, let alone that it should be in Alice Springs? Without this endorsement how does it have any credibility?
    Oh but I forgot, Victoria has the “National Gallery of Victoria”.
    Perhaps our gallery will be styled the National Aboriginal Gallery of the NT!

  5. Bruce Walker says the National Aboriginal Art Gallery (NAAG) should:-
    • 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).
    I see these as a contradiction.
    I cannot envisage this proposed development anywhere other than situated in the landscape of Central Australia, either north or south of The Gap.
    Definitely not tucked away in the town, in the midst of the whitefella built environment.
    He also says:
    • Art and Culture are inseparable – they are expressions of the history and the future of Aboriginal people.
    Yet he does not address the issue of the co-location of the Aboriginal Cultural Centre with the NAAG. Probably because they could not easily co-exist in the “physical centre of town”.
    I agree with most of the points raised by Bruce, but his conclusion does not follow from the gist of his argument. Perhaps, as Alex Hope suggests, he also has an agenda to “revitalise the CBD”.
    His comment that “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”
    is not valid.
    I suggest that the Desert Park itself is already part of the “inland capital”.

  6. I was listening to Dave Batic on the radio about the same subject and he was saying that a visit to the National Aboriginal gallery should be placed on the National Curriculum to showcase art and Aboriginal cultural.
    That had me wondering, is this gallery going to be showcasing Central Australian art, or will it be featuring that with other SAboriginal art from around the country to keep in line with the “National” side of things?
    What sort of cultural learning will be there? Culture from the Arrente from Central Australia, or also that from WA, the Top End, Victoria, QLD?
    Is the membership and exec of the Chamber of Commerce privy to some extra info of what the building will contain?
    If so it would be good for the residents to have this info.
    As far as my question above, why would school kids from, say Geelong come here unless it featured Aboriginal customs, art and traditions from their area? Or is it a case that people are thinking that the aborigine from Papunya has the same culture, beliefs and art as that of a clan from the Mornington Peninsula or Bribie Island?
    Surely if more Aboriginal history is added to the national curriculum, it would focus on the people, traditions and customs of the people who lived in the local area, unless our national museum contains information relating to all other language and tribal groups throughout the country.
    If that is the case, then surely we need to adjust the projected figures and in turn the economic benefit.
    For the claims that it will bring 150,000 extra tourists a year, and domestic tourism from school groups dwarfing even that figure, even the entire site of the Anzac Oval precinct would be needed if it is to truly be a national art gallery. Otherwise it would be a Central Australian Art Gallery, which one is it?
    One would hope that the planners understand the concept that Australia was made up of over 200 hundred nations not just Aboriginal people as one collective.
    Unless this is addressed the bickering over its purpose and representation will make it a laughing stock. Let’s hope the consultation with TOs from around the country are done better than what we have seen so far.
    Policy on the run? We seem to becoming used to that. But to allocate so much money into it when we don’t actually have any, for an economic benefit that relies on crossing your fingers, seems to be so irresponsible it is not funny.

  7. It’s a shame there is so much confusion going by the comments about this project when there has been so much (alleged) consultation.
    So many questions are left unanswered except the main one of location – we all know if anything is going to go anywhere, it will be where we are told, Anzac Oval.
    While I understand the benefits to revitalize the CBD I would have thought that as a National Gallery / Culture Centre location would need to be culturally correct to house other regions’ Indigenous art and culture.
    Or is the Cultural Centre different – going somewhere different?
    This could be so good for Central Australia, just a shame it has been started off so confusing and so dictatorial.

  8. Thanks for the comments and questions which require some further clarification on my part.
    Charlie and Alex highlight some apparent contradictions in the paper.
    • Is purpose a spectacular building in a wonderful desert landscape, or
    • Is purpose a spectacular building in a CBD environment that seems to be difficult to conceptualise?
    This apparent contradiction exists because Charlie’s sense of purpose has certain preconditions whereas the Government preconditions around the CBD respond to another more layered context. Both are legitimate views depending on your purpose.
    For some people the purpose reflected in their support of the Anzac Hill site is as simple as their ability to have a sandwich on the unfenced lawns in front of the NAAG through to support because it will result in new football facilities or they suspect it will improve visitation in the Todd Mall. In general, the support that is publicly declared is driven by considerations on the site and how individuals may benefit rather than the purpose of the NAAG. Hence the confusion – the cart is before the horse.
    My intention has not been to tout for two sites as Alex suggests but to demonstrate that even within the CBD related purpose there is more than one potential site (I say two but there are no doubt more). This statement is not made to curtail Aboriginal discussion about other sites that they might feel are more culturally appropriate, it is merely acknowledging government’s current view that to achieve the government’s purpose the NAAG needs to be in the CBD.
    And to be clear about Alex’s point I am not talking about the Uniting Church blocks and I am not arguing for cricket to return to the village green at Anzac Oval and I am no longer involved in CAT and the DK Precinct.
    I also would contend that if a “reset” was possible it would most likely only be successful if people had a chance to consider options and clarify their thinking around a number of sites. However, having said that the clear intention of the paper was to not talk about the site related discussions but for people to know that there were other options if they have a chance to better define and align the purpose.
    It is my understanding that the Aboriginal group who have been pursuing the concept of an Aboriginal Cultural Centre have conducted extensive negotiations with first nations groups nationally and have some agreement that a national centre should be in Alice Springs. Somehow they need to be able to bring this experience to a point of negotiation about overall purpose given the contention that art and culture are inseparable. One site, one centre seems to be the general consensus.
    In searching for alignment of purpose it might be useful to ask the question who are we building this for, and who do we anticipate will pay to visit and go through the facility over the next 50 years.
    Is this just another attraction in Alice Springs like the Desert Park, Telegraph Station or Araluen? Is it a destination along the Aboriginal Art Trail? Is it one of a number of investments in repositioning Alice Springs as the nations Inland capital? Different purposes lead to different solutions.
    The paper on purpose was an attempt to tease apart the various purposes that seemed to be reflected in the community consultations. My process started talking with Aboriginal people and grew to include people and organisations of long standing in Alice Springs.
    If Government and business are saying the NAAG has to be in the CBD to maximise economic benefit and co-investment potential then a consequence of that purpose is that investment south of the Gap or at the Desert Park does not meet that purpose. (Logic. not opinion.)
    If Aboriginal and other interests argue for south of The Gap and the Desert Park for different cultural purposes then that is their right to assert that position. (Opinion.)
    The question then is whether it is possible to negotiate a single purpose that inspires all. Will government make concessions and spend money on a facility south of The Gap or at the Desert Park or will Aboriginal people make concessions around the government’s preferred CBD option or an alternative CBD option?
    In either case can the community align behind a common purpose? Is there a way forward that can unite the community?
    For the sake of the analysis let us assume the NAAG will attract 500,000 people per year to Alice Springs. While most galleries nationally have free entry let us assume that visitors pay $20 to enter the gallery. On my rough estimate we would end up in a break-even situation at best where revenue equaled the cost of operation if every visitor went there. This analysis is not site specific.
    The real return for this government led investment has to come from the co-investment from the private sector into the community. In my mind a further part of the purpose has to be to position the NAAG where co-investment might occur at a scale that validates the initial government investment. Outside of the CBD of Alice Springs or the Yulara Resort it is difficult to see where this could be achieved. (Again more logic than opinion.) This will be a challenge even for the preferred site.
    The only assertion I would make is that even if we as a community can agree a unified purpose, if an image of the final structure does not leap off a tourism webpage saying “This is a world class must see” then we are missing a significant opportunity. It is hard to see the business case stacking up without the “Wow” factor.
    This project is a real test of Boundless Possible.


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