Art house whine 6.12.2010


Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald had a wonderful letter lamenting the fact that Newcastle lacks an art gallery that befits its wonderful art collection.

The letter made a point that I’ve heard – before that Newcastle has more artists per head of population than any other Australian city. In typical Novocastrian style I first doubted this then started to think of the most mundane reasons for it –  it’s cheap to live here being the first one that came to mind.

The friend I was with at the time said she thinks there are so many artists because it’s actually an inspiring place to live, surrounded by our harbour, the beaches, the river, the Victorian buildings in the CBD and our trees.

Renew Newcastle has been an interesting initiative, putting artists and community groups into empty retail space. To a pedestrian the programme improves the look of our main streets. In partnership with GPT, the shopping centre giant who seem to have assisted in turning our former CBD into a desert by buying up retail space and leaving it idle for several years, Renew Newcastle won the Australia Business Arts Foundation (AbaF) award for their work and the founder is a now-ex-Novocastrian working on a project leading to renew Australia. The name of Mr Westbury’s video/vimeo ‘DIY Transforming a Dying City’ is perhaps not as useful for those of us who choose to live here as it is for the creator. In fact, I find it such a negative title, I’ve written a whining email to the head of Renew Newcastle.

Back to the Art Gallery According to the NRAG’s website ‘In 1945 Dr Roland Pope, an ophthalmic surgeon from Sydney, made the promise of the bequest of his art collection of some 137 Australian paintings to Newcastle, conditional upon the construction of a gallery to house them.’ The works stayed in storage for years until the present gallery was built. It’s a lovely building, in a beautiful setting, with a Hill’s-fig-lined street to welcome and shelter visitors. (Had to get that in there.)

One of the other major contributors to the gallery was William Bowmore who lived in Newcastle for decades. At the end of his life he gave works valued at $17 million to the Art Gallery of South Australia and $7 million to the gallery in Newcastle. I presume there’s a story behind that disparity and I wonder whether some of it goes back to a historically off-hand approach by our council.

I’m glad to see that there’s a guide to Newcastle’s public art on the regional gallery’s website, along with maps for a walking tour. It’s a shame the entire collection of the NRAG isn’t available online, especially since there’s so little space at the gallery to display the works and most are in storage. On the website of the Metropolitan Museum 214,136 works can be viewed online. I suppose we dream about having a fraction of their resources… Home


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One Response to “Art house whine 6.12.2010”

  1. Marcus Westbury Says:


    I will leave it for others to judge whether they agree with you or me that a “dying city” is fair characterisation of the areas Newcastle where Renew Newcastle was working when we found them. I’d argue very strongly that it is but i can see why you and others may disagree with that. Given that you yourself characterise the CBD as a “desert” but react very negatively to my suggestion that it has been “dying” i am a little confused about the difference to be honest. Would you object to me describing the CBD as “deserted”?

    As for GPT, i will leave it to others to argue about that but one point is worth emphasising: GPT, unlike almost all other property owners in Newcastle DID NOT leave their buildings to sit empty. They have actually done something – through partnering with Renew Newcastle – about the empty buildings that they own. They have made available dozens of empty spaces to seed more than 50 new creative projects, businesses, and community groups in the city.

    If you want to pick on property owners for “turning our former CBD into a desert by buying up retail space and leaving it idle for several years” the criticism is best directed at the scores of property owners who have NOT given their buildings for the community to use for free.

    I understand that there a plenty of legitimate reasons why people in Newcastle want to criticise, contest or debate GPT’s role but what they have done with their empty buildings – and what they and Renew Newcastle received the AbaF award for – is the opposite of what you have described. There are many property owners in Newcastle that have left their buildings boarded up, gutted, and literally falling into the streets in some places – perhaps this criticism would be best be directed at them?


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