Felicity James and James Dunlevie, ‘Warning over NT museum staff cutbacks’, ABC Indigenous, 4 Sept 2014
Artworks could be at risk if a lack of staff at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is not addressed, a report has found.
The August 2014 Report to the Legislative Assembly found issues with storage of artworks – with deterioration of protective coverings on some items – no digital collections management policy, outdated and unsupported software, storm and water damage risk due to aging infrastructure and a backlog in assessing new acquisitions of up to 20 years.
MAGNT director Pierre Arpin said he accepted some of the report’s findings but questioned whether Auditor-General Frank McGuiness was the appropriate person to conduct the review.
In his report Mr McGuiness said the systems in place at MAGNT at the time of the review were “adequate for the purpose of managing the MAGNT collections”.
But he added there were several issues requiring attention to “ensure the ongoing safeguarding” of works at the MAGNT.
“I consider that most of the issues raised may require additional resources to address them successfully. This may prove difficult to achieve in the prevailing budgetary climate.”
He said the Australian benchmark standard for museums and galleries required there be enough workers to meet day-to-day management and program requirements and the results of the review “suggest this may not be the case”.
“Budget constraints that have affected MAGNT over an extended period of time have led to progressive reductions in staff numbers and at the time of the review there were vacancies across the curatorial and collections management areas of the organisation. A lack of adequate staff numbers may affect MAGNT’s ability to discharge its core functions.”
Mr McGuiness said the staffing shortage had led to issues with data management and cataloguing.
“The History and Culture collection’s central acquisitions register database, which is the permanent record of these collections database, contained 23,797 records,” he said.
“There were also 2,180 records, or 9 per cent of total records, for which there were no current location recorded. That, in turn raises questions about the actual location of the items and whether they are, indeed, held by MAGNT.”
The report said delays in accessioning – the process whereby MAGNT decides whether an item should be included as part its permanent collections while also ensuring that MAGNT holds legal title to the item – could take up to four years, with some items taking up to 20 years.
“An organisation such as MAGNT is unlikely to fulfil its obligations if it lacks sufficient staff to manage its collections – from preserving, safe-guarding and caring for the physical items, to ensuring they are housed in facilities that are fit for purpose,” the report stated.
The report also said the risk of water damage from monsoonal storms and plumbing leaks presented an “ongoing challenge”.
“The problems may not be capable of easy resolution in the current budgetary climate, but it is a matter that should be pursued with vigour by the new MAGNT Board,” Mr McGuiness said.
“The physical care of artworks were affected the collections and challenges of managing collections data – both collection records and digital presence, are affected by the staffing issue.”
Mr Arpin said Mr McGuiness was ill-equipped to conduct the review.
“Next time, bring in a collections manager to audit the collection, as opposed to an auditor,” he said.
“I’m not saying that nothing needs to be done, I’m saying that we’ll be improving the database in the coming year.”
Mr Arpin, a Canadian who took on the role in 2012, said the backlog in accessioning was being addressed.
“We’ve got a conservator working to do the assessment of the works literally starting this week,” he said.
He said the new board – which had met twice since forming in July 2014 – was looking at the report’s findings and would examine how to better fund the operations of the MAGNT.
“I guess one of the challenges will be to say how are we going to assist in scoping out new sources of revenue,” he said.
He said the museum and gallery remained committed to local artists and said perceptions it did not were “a story from the past”.
The MAGNT board consists of Melbourne barrister Allan Myers QC, former Charles Darwin University vice chancellor Professor Helen Garnett, Darwin Airport CEO Ian Kew, Sydney businessman and property developer Ervin Vidor, Darwin accountant and tax advisor Mark Rowberry, NT construction magnate Michael Sitzler, Aboriginal artist and educator Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman, Alice Springs lawyer John Stirk and Darwin research scientist Dr Peter Whitehead.
Northern Territory artist Franck Gohier has exhibited and donated work to the gallery and said he had concerns his and others works were potentially at risk.
“When you make art, you expect that in a major institution it’s going to be looked after for posterity. Particularly when you donate works as well too,” he said.
“You’re under the assumption that those works will be cared for, they’ll be catalogued.”
Mr Gohier said the MAGNT’s standing in the Territory’s art community had waned and local artists were no longer a priority.
“When the museum first started it was one of the most exciting things in town, it was really great, sort of like a positive vibe about it that declined very quickly over the years,” he said.
“There’s been almost no support for local visual arts from the museum, funding or collecting for more than 20 years.
“Ironically the national gallery has a better collection of contemporary Northern Territory art than the MAGNT has.”