Above: Desert Mob, Araluen’s flagship exhibition of art from the desert Aboriginal art centres, in 2014.
Photo from our archive.
By KIERAN FINNANE
There are some important things that the National Aboriginal Art Gallery Strategic Business Case is not or does not do. It says so itself.
It is not an independent analysis. It advises this on the very first page: “Ernst & Young has prepared the Report for the benefit of the Northern Territory Department of Tourism, Sport and Culture and has considered only the interests of the Northern Territory Department of Tourism, Sport and Culture.”
Not surprisingly then, it has not examined the possibility of location for the gallery anywhere other than the CBD – the department’s and government’s preferred site. The document therefore cannot contribute to settling the controversy over this aspect of the project.
$224,121 (excluding GST) later, it is not a full business case. There are many steps to go before such a case could be developed, as it outlines. Among them, securing a site, detailing the scope of the project and its design, investigating funding sources, developing a detailed cost benefit analysis.
It is not a cost benefit analysis of any kind. Rather it is “a preliminary (and highly indicative) assessment of the economic impact” of the project.
The contribution is expressed in “units that resonate with stakeholders”, that is jobs and GRP (gross regional product).
As such, the document provides, by its own account, “a useful starting point as part of the strategic assessment of whether the project demonstrates potential merit”. (My emphasis.)
Without a cost benefit analysis, the document does not provide “a view on the technical and financial feasibility of the project”.
It does “not constitute investment advice or a recommendation to [government] on a future course of action”.
It notes that the project would entail significant capital and ongoing operating costs. There is an indicative construction cost – $150m to $180m – estimated by the NT’s Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics. This does not include demolition or infrastructure replacement costs (both of which would be on the cards if the land swap with the Town Council proceeds).
Outside the scope of the document was any analysis or estimate of operational costs.
There is no mention of the state of the NT Budget – heavily in the red. Thus there is no consideration of the affordability of such a big project for a small indebted jurisdiction.
The document is at its weakest on making the case for why the national institution that the gallery project hopes to be should be in “Mparntwe (Alice Springs)”, completely missing the opportunity to acknowledge the sacred Arrernte landscape that imposes itself here and the living human culture that is intrinsic with it. Instead it suggests that the gallery building “could become the image associated with Mparntwe (Alice Springs), change how the town is seen by itself and others”. (My emphasis.)
Of course, to place primacy, in relation to this project, on the presence of country – the Aboriginal English term rendering land, culture, people indivisible – would challenge the government’s obstinate insistence that it be located in the CBD.
The next steps the documents outlines are very much the ones that might have been identified last summer after custodians knocked the Anzac Hill precinct location on the head. These are, to quote:
Develop cultural agreement with Mparntwe (Alice Springs) custodians.
Confirm and acquire a site for the Gallery in Mparntwe (Alice Springs).
Develop a functional design brief for the Gallery.
Establish a governance model and underpinning legislation.
Progress Aboriginal workforce and enterprise development.
Secure forward exhibition content and curatorial design.
Investigate funding sources.
Explore implementation considerations (including potential co-location or shared activities with the National Indigenous Cultural Centre).
Some of these same issues are listed later under a separate heading of “Outstanding risks”, including funding, location and Aboriginal support for the site.
Right: Council chambers and civic centre lawns: for the bulldozer?
Other listed risks include “maintaining majority Aboriginal governance on National Reference Group” and “reduction in levels of community support”.
There is some progress reported in relation to arts sector national support and securing exhibition content.
The National Gallery of Australia is well disposed towards the project.
The report quotes the NGA as follows, from its submission to a 2018 Commonwealth senate committee inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions:
There has been significant debate surrounding a new ‘national’ Indigenous Art Gallery and Centre in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) which, if supported, could potentially partner with the NGA with an innovative and generous lending program. The NGA’s collection of Indigenous art is the largest and best in the world and we should be thinking laterally and creatively, should a new institution be created. The NGA would need additional support to service a continuous loans program, but these funds would be significantly lower than starting to build new collections from scratch. The best solution might well be for the new institution itself to receive funds to support loans and curatorial input from the NGA .
There is no estimate in the document of how much such a program would cost but it notes that “the full cost of holding exhibitions through this process, including transport costs, insurances costs and hanging costs would need to be considered as part of future financial assessment.”
A lending program gets over the problem of the proposed gallery having no collection of its own. The document is specific about this: the gallery is not proposed to be a collecting institution (even though an apparently rogue sentence late in the document contradicts this: “The Northern Territory model seeks to bring together under one roof a representative collection drawn from across the continent.”)
The document also talks about drawing on the Territory-owned collections “for core exhibitions and curatorial design, particularly during the first years of opening” – these being the collections of MAGNT and the Araluen Arts Centre. There is no analysis of or reflection on the ability of those institutions to maintain their own interesting and relevant exhibition schedules while lending substantial numbers of high calibre works for this new institution in the years when it is attempting to establish its ‘national’ profile.
The pressure on those collections might be eased somewhat by the apparent intention to also display in the gallery “ethnographic cultural material and artefacts”, in order to “help contextualise the modern material”.
The document reports that 65 meetings with potential partners and potential supporters of the gallery were held across 2018. Next steps would involve drawing up Memoranda of Agreement. It notes that progress has been made on this with the National Museum of Australia, which, like the NGA, has a legislative obligation to assist other institutions.
The document notes some “shared objectives” and some differences between the proposed gallery in “Mparntwe (Alice Springs)” and South Australia’s Gallery for Aboriginal Art and Cultures planned for the former RAH site in Adelaide. It suggests the two institutions could co-exist and work collaboratively and reports that members of institutions connected to both projects are already in communication about “partnership opportunities”.