Museum Dreaming

Published April 7, 2023
Tarrkarri - architects' drawing

When it comes to cultural matters, Australia is the land of wishful thinking. The entire rationale behind the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern Project, valued at $344 million, was “build it and they will come”. After three months this is already looking like a pipe dream. The former NSW Government’s planned destruction of the Powerhouse Museum – which no longer calls itself a “museum” at all – was even more fanciful and costly. The process was set to create three venues, in Ultimo, Parramatta and Castle Hill, with vastly reduced attendances and a final bill of well over $1 billion. Despite numerous requests, the government never released a credible business plan. According to Kylie Winkworth of the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, the proposals were working to a secret plan that projected an unlikely $38.8 million in annual commercial revenue. The new Labor government has promised to halt these schemes and release the documents that have been deliberately kept hidden from public view.

Sydney may have a brash and flamboyant reputation, but museum mania is spreading across Australia, with more than a billion dollars’ worth of Aboriginal cultural projects on track for the next few years. This is largely due to a new ideological veneration of all things Indigenous which seeks to make amends for two centuries of neglect. Indeed, the first pillar of Revive, the Albanese government’s Cultural Policy document, is First Nations First.

The major arts expenditure in federal Labor’s 2022-23 budget was an $80 million grant to help fund a National Aboriginal Arts Centre (NAAG) in Alice Springs. The only other grant of substance was $50 million for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Perth.

Going around Australia, here is a list of projects and projected costs:

  • Alice Springs: National Aboriginal Arts Centre (NAAG), $130 million
  • Darwin: New Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, $88 million
  • Canberra: Ngurra, a new home for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and a National Resting Place, intended to hold “the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and heritage items”, $316.5 million
  • Brisbane: Scoping study for a new First Nations Cultural Centre, $2 million
  • Perth: a new institution intended as “a celebration of First Nations People and cultures from across the world, starting from the Whadjuk People”, $260 million
  • Melbourne: proposed First Nations Cultural Centre, incorporating a “Black Parliament” and keeping place, $400 million
  • Sydney: Conversion of the Museum of Sydney into an Aboriginal Cultural Space. No budget announced.
  • Adelaide: Tarrkarri – Centre for First Nations Cultures”, $250 million.

This explosion of Indigneous cultural institutions raises some important questions:

What are all these museums going to contain?  There is only so much Aboriginal art and heritage to go round, and the most important items are already in public collections.

Who is going to run these places?  It’s considered imperative to put Indigenous people in leadership roles, but there is not enough expertise to fill so many jobs. In making crucial appointments there are often bitter rivalries between local communities as to who should be in charge.

Who is the audience?  International tourism is a factor, but every institution requires significant local visitation – repeat visitation – to be viable. It has been difficult in the past to raise audiences for major exhibitions of Aboriginal art, so why do we now believe viewers will come flocking? It’s especially difficult if there are no great works of art, or an inadequate exhibition program. Elaborate audio-visual presentations on the story of Indigenous Australia will be watched once only.

Proposed site of NAAG, Alice Springs

While Darwin and perhaps Canberra may be relatively clear about displays and collections, every other project will need to deal with these issues or proceed in the manner of the NSW government with the Powerhouse – by simply ignoring the opinions of experts and public. This reckless strategy may get a museum built, but it takes no account of the ongoing costs that grow from year to year. In a very short time “culture” takes second place to desperate attempts at fundraising through venue hire, merchandise, gala dinners, and anything else that brings in a buck. A project may be launched with great fanfare by one government, leaving their successors to pick up the bill and figure out the details. With an Indigenous enterprise there is significant moral pressure to push on with a poorly drafted scheme or be accused of betraying First Nations People.

This brings us to Adelaide, which I’m going to use as a case study to illuminate the problems facing all these well-meaning projects. What makes this project so noteworthy is that it began in 2016 as a plan to build a contemporary art annex for the Art Gallery of South Australia. Because the AGSA has the second-largest collection in Australia, and one of the smallest exhibition spaces, there was an obvious argument for a new venue.

Proposed site of Indigenous cultural centre, Perth

Adelaide Contemporary was conceived by the previous AGSA director, Nick Mitzevich, as a local answer to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The Weatherill Labor government appointed an expert panel, chaired by experienced arts administrator, Michael Lynch, and nominated the site of the former Royal Adelaide Hospital on North Terrace as a possible location. An international competition was launched to choose the architects.

When Steven Marshall’s Liberal governent came to power in March 2018, one of the new Premier’s first initiatives was to scrap plans for Adelaide Contemporary in favour of an “Australian National Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery”. The thinking was that Australia already had a number of contemporary art museums, but no dedicated gallery of Aboriginal art. Marshall saw an opportunity to get in first and leave an important legacy. It was to be his ”jewel in the crown”.

Steven Marshall discusses plans for his Aboriginal cultural centre over a barbie

In June, New York-based architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, partnering with local firm, Woods Bagot, were announced as the winners of the competition, but Premier Marshall made it clear they would be designing the Aboriginal gallery, not the contemporary one. By March 2019, Marshall announced $85 million in funds from the Federal government, with the rest being contributed by the government of SA, for a total of $150 million.

By August, the Marshall government had stopped using the word “national”, most probably in response to the Federal government warning that a National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs was in the pipeline. By August 2020, the words “gallery” or “museum” were no longer being used. Now the Premier was talking about a “centre”. The business case was allegedly finalised but not revealed to the public. In September the government advertised unsuccessfully for a director, and in November, added another $50 million to the budget.

Architects’ drawing of new art gallery for Darwin

In February 2021 the architectural design was released for the new “Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre”, which was going to be bigger than the AGSA and the South Australian Museum (SAM) combined. There was no clear indication as to what would be exhibited in this gargantuan building, but it was presumed to be drawing on the holdings of the SAM, which are mostly in storage, and perhaps Tarnanthi, the AGSA’s successful biennial survey of Indigenous art. In the same month, the search for a director was shelved.

In April we learned that multiple consultancy firms were working on the business case – which has never seen the light of day. The Premier’s final big announcement, in December, was that the Centre would be called Tarrkarri – which means “future” in the local Kaurna language. On 19 March 2022, the Marshall government was swept from power by Peter Malinauskas’s Labor administration, who inherited the problem.

On 31 October, Premier Malinauskas announced an “urgent review” into the project, now known as “Tarrkarri – Centre for First Nations Cultures”.  A panel was appointed, consisting of businesswoman, Carolyn Hewson; former NSW Premier, Bob Carr; and former Indigenous Australians Minister in the Morrison government, Ken Wyatt. Mr. Malinauskas told an audience at the Purrumpa: First Nations Arts and Cultural Gathering that the project would still go ahead and be located at the current site, but it needed to be viewed as a centre of national, rather than state significance. As a consequence, a further $50 million was added to the budget.

Proposed site of Ngurra, Canberra

In late January, I spoke with the advisory panel via zoom, and gave my opinion that the only sensible option was to revert to the Adelaide Contemporary model and put the whole thing under the administration of the AGSA. This would ensure the centre had easy access to artwork, and programs drawn up by an experienced group of curators. A substantial component of the display would be devoted to First Nations art, but without the constant pressure to keep coming up with exclusively Indigenous material in the face of so much competition from other centres.

In this, I was only echoing the opinion of Michael Lynch, who told the local press in September 2020: “I just don’t buy the notion of what they’re proposing to do… 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 got the distinct impression that the panel – none of whom have any direct experience of working with museums – had no intention, or perhaps no option, of returning to the Adelaide Contemporary proposal. They were commited to Tarrkarri, but I couldn’t agree with their ideas as to how the centre was going to work, which seemed to revolve around a café, a shop, a black box theatre and a grand, hi-tech attempt to tell the story of Aboriginal culture.

It may be easy enough to borrow from the SAM, which has more than 30,000 items that are rarely exhibited, but will the general public really want to see 5,000 spears, 3,000 boomerangs, and myriad other artefacts?

An important discussion point was Tarnanthi – both exhibition and festival, which, under the stewardship of AGSA curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Nici Cumpston, has become one of the two essential events in the First Nations art calendar, along with the Telstra Art awards in Darwin. The AGSA has reported that since its inception in 2015, Tarnanthi has featured work by more than 6,000 First Nations artists at the AGSA and partner venues and hosted more than 1.6 million visitors. The art fair associated with the show has generated sales in excess of $6.6 million.

South Australian Museum: more boomerangs than you can poke a stick at

If Tarrkirri is set up as a fully independent institution, as envisaged by Steven Marshall, it opens the door to a perpetual conflict of interests with the other museums. Will the AGSA and the SAM be pleased to hand over items on demand when this may clash with their own plans and protocols? Only someone who has no experience of the possessive, territorial nature of museums would imagine this could be easily achieved. Neither can one imagine the AGSA happily bequeathing Tarnanthi to the new centre. A museum doesn’t spend years building up knowledge and contacts, sponsors and expertise, just to hand them over to an untried, untested organisation.

The obvious way of ensuring the longterm viablity of this project is to return to the Adelaide Contemporary plan. If this is ruled out, the next best option is to put the entire thing under the umbrella of the AGSA, ensuring a high level of professionalism and ready access to Tarnanthi. To be blunt: to set up this new centre in any other way is to risk sleepwalking into disaster, building a handsome new institution that falls flat with the general public. The warning is not just relevant to Adelaide, but to all the new First Nations centres, galleries and museums that are being launched with so much good will and so little forethought.

Finally, along with all those dull, practical considerations about cost, content and audiences, there is a cultural and philosophical issue at stake. For a decade or more, museums in Australia and abroad have striven to integrate Indigenous art with western and contemporary art. The idea is to break down those categories that define some works as conventional and others as exotic, depending on the identity of the artist. There’s every reason to hang paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, or the Papunya artists alongside the Abstract Expressionists, or to put the innovative works of Gunybi Ganambarr or John Prince Siddon alongside those of white avant-gardists. Nor should we ignore the growing numbers of white artists who have been powerfully influenced by Indigenous art and the perspective it embodies.

When we celebrate First Nations art in specialised museums and art centres we are restoring the exoticism that was being gradually dissipated. We may feel a genuine need to make reparations for the historical abuses inflicted on Aboriginal people, but that’s not best achieved by quarantining Indigenous work in narrowly focused institutions that dwell on the divisions in Australian society rather those things we hold in common. If one talks to artists in the remote communities, they invariably say one of their main aims is to share their culture with the broadest possible audience. This may be achieved more effectively – and economically – by integration in museums and galleries rather than by glorified segregation.


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 April, 2023