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Senior arts figure slams Aboriginal Cultures Centre plan

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Premier Steven Marshall’s decision to scrap former Labor government plans for a contemporary art gallery at Lot Fourteen is a “huge opportunity that’s been wasted” and the replacement $150 million Aboriginal Arts and Cultures Centre is an “incredible waste of public money”, claims an eminent arts administrator who helped plan the junked gallery.

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Renowned international arts administrator Michael Lynch told InDaily Marshall’s “jewel in the crown” for Lot Fourteen was “a strange hybrid that nobody seems to want” that “lacks rationale, lacks purpose (and) lacks connection with the Indigenous community”.

Lynch is a former general manager of the Australia Council, director of the Sydney Opera House and chief executive of London’s South Bank Centre. He has been awarded an AM and CBE in Australia and in the UK in recognition of his long-standing career in the arts.

In January 2018 he was appointed by the former government to chair the Adelaide Contemporary select committee, which ran an international design competition for a contemporary art gallery at the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site on North Terrace.

No funding had been committed for the actual construction of the gallery, estimated to have cost about $140 million, but the former State Government spent $500,000 progressing plans in its 2016-17 budget.

To me it’s a huge opportunity that’s been wasted and lost by the Government

The Adelaide Contemporary select committee announced the winner of the international design competition – local firm Woods Bagot and New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfo – after the Liberal Government was elected in March 2018, despite party leader Steven Marshall’s election promise to scrap the contemporary art gallery plans and instead build an “Australian National Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery” at the site.

The Government has since dropped the word “national” from the gallery’s name.

“I just don’t buy the notion of what they’re proposing to do,” Lynch said.

“I thought it was an incredible waste of both public money and a huge amount of effort on behalf of the Art Gallery of SA and a lot of other interested players in junking the Adelaide Contemporary project when they did.

“I’m really distressed and disappointed that what was a fabulous proposal, a fabulous architectural competition and a fabulous celebration of both contemporary and Aboriginal art is still struggling despite the fact that we’re two and a half years down the track since the Premier came up with the idea.

“I think they’ve effectively blown the good work that had been done and two and a half years down the track they’ve got nowhere.

“To me it’s a huge opportunity that’s been wasted and lost by the Government.”

Michael Lynch (second left) with former Art Gallery of SA director Nick Mitzevich, former gallery chair Tracey Whiting, Adelaide Contemporary design competition director Malcolm Reading and former Arts SA executive director Peter Louca. Photo: Nat Rogers

The State Government has spent $147,529 commissioning a report to “define the vision and scope” of the Aboriginal Cultures Centre, $235 on probity advice and $77,025 on a “full” business case.

Last week it started advertising for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander “project and program director” to lead the construction and planning of the state and federal-funded gallery ahead of its anticipated 2023 opening.

“The election was two and a half years ago (and) this was supposedly a project that they had committed themselves to do and only now they’re advertising for someone to do it having had relatively limited discussions with the Indigenous community,” Lynch said.

“The idea that they’re going to be able to find an Indigenous person to be able to realise something that was largely the creation of politicians is really a leap of faith.

“At the moment all they’ve got is a grab-bag of things they might be able to take from the Museum or grab from the Gallery or take from other Aboriginal organisations.

“If they’ve only spent $77,000 out of the $150 million (for a business case) they’ve got for the project then one doubts whether they’re taking it very seriously.”

Lynch said Aboriginal art galleries are difficult to realise, with competing proposals interstate struggling to take off due to conflicts over location, curatorial strategies and funding.

“The one in the Northern Territory is still struggling to be realised, Perth’s trying to do one, Sydney have been trying for 20 years, Melbourne’s been trying for many years,” he said.

“They’re not an easy thing to realise and that’s the advice I personally gave the Premier about why Adelaide Contemporary would be a much better way of celebrating the Kaurna and Aboriginal communities of South Australia than trying to come up with some sort of strange hybrid that no one seems to want to own, particularly the Aboriginal community.”

The winner of the Adelaide Contemporary design competition, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Woods Bagot.

An interior view of the winning design.

He said the Adelaide Contemporary Gallery would have been “highly respectful” of Aboriginal culture, with a “substantial focus” on Aboriginal art.

“It would have incorporated things like Tarnanthi (Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art), which the Gallery does, the (Adelaide) Biennial, the large collection of work that the Gallery has.

“It would have given an identity to the (Lot Fourteen) site and created a major attractor in the same way as Mona in Tasmania, Goma in Queensland, the MCA in Sydney and the galleries in Melbourne.

“Adelaide Contemporary was going to work – there was no question about it in terms of tourist numbers, activating the east-end, activating the Lot Fourteen site.

“Contemporary art is still a major magnet and particularly in a post-COVID world, in the city of churches they will probably be the cathedrals of the future.”

It’s a real tragedy for Adelaide

The now-retired New South Wales arts administrator described plans for Adelaide Contemporary as “highly advanced” and “rigorous”, with “numerous” businesses cases showing the gallery would have brought in substantial tourism dollars.

“It would have been the first major cultural building in Adelaide since the Festival Centre,” he said.

“If they’d gone ahead with the gallery it would have been almost finished.

“It’s a real tragedy for Adelaide.”

Lynch said Marshall was “kidding himself” by announcing that the Aboriginal Cultural Centre would open by 2023.

“If they do it will be akin to a very shoddy project.

“Bearing in mind that the budget he has for the Cultures Centre is now bigger than what it would have cost to realise Adelaide Contemporary in its totality, I think that will be post-COVID a heavily and rigorously disputed spending of both federal and state money.”

He said Marshall did not invite him to do any work on the Aboriginal Cultural Centre after the Adelaide Contemporary project was scrapped.

“My views were pretty clear,” he said.

“I’m a bit jaundiced about the whole thing.”

Marshall rejected Lynch’s criticisms in a statement to InDaily.

“I reject entirely the criticisms of Mr Lynch,” he said.

“The establishment of the Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre (AACC) at Lot Fourteen is a once-in-a generation opportunity to establish a truly distinctive and internationally renowned institution which will recognise and celebrate the world’s oldest living culture.”

A report summarising findings from the Government’s consultation with Aboriginal communities and other cultural institutions – published in November – recommended that the Cultural Centre by called a “centre” as “for many people, the word ‘museum’ or ‘gallery’ mean different things”.

It is anticipated that the SA Museum’s mostly-hidden collection of Aboriginal cultural artefacts  – 95 per cent of which is currently kept in a leaky storage shed – will form the centrepiece of the new centre, which aims to “bring Country to life” through interactive displays and exhibition spaces.

The Federal Government committed $85 million and the State Government contributed $65 million to build the centre as part of a city deal signed last year.

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