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Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Crisis

The following item ‘Top End Suffers as Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory loses its sparkle” was written by Nicholas Rothwell and appeared in The Australian February 18 2013:

IT is the key cultural institution of north Australia, the landmark at Darwin’s heart, greatly loved, much visited – yet the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is in deep crisis, underfunded, bleeding staff positions, unable to run an exhibition program worthy of the name.

The trouble has been long in the making: in recent years MAGNT has suffered a genteel slip down the totem pole of government priorities – it has been subject to a cascade of cutbacks and managerial upheavals. But its woes came into sharp, sudden focus late last year with the release of the debt-plagued new NT government’s brisk mini-budget. For the museum – by far the most popular cultural site in the Top End, attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year – has no autonomy: during the past decade it has been a small cog in a department of the government. Its director, Pierre Arpin, reports to a senior bureaucrat, who reports in turn to Matt Conlan, a new minister with a large array of portfolios competing for his attention.

This dependent status has long left MAGNT vulnerable to the fitful winds of politics: bizarre ministerial interventions, eccentric appointments, odd project initiatives. But money is now at the heart of the matter. The NT’s new government came to office in late August and inherited a billion-dollar budget deficit: a high-level review asked for cuts from all departments. The museum was a prime target. On the published mini-budget figures, it will lose almost $600,000 in the next two years, one-tenth of its funding, enough to make a significant difference to its day-to-day operations. The axe has already fallen on its research library and its collections photographer, while key curatorial posts remain unfilled. At present there is no Southeast Asian art curator, Australian fine art or indigenous art curator: three natural science curators were recruited recently but the funding for their salaries was never confirmed.

How great the contrast with MAGNT’s glory days, when its modernistic headquarters were newly completed on their site gazing outwards to the Timor Sea, and it was at the heart of Darwin life. Its flamboyant director, the late Colin Jack-Hinton, held the city in the palm of his hand: it was at once meeting place and research hub, place to be seen and place to see. There was a high-octane exhibition program: locally generated shows, both artistic and scientific, with a scene change every fortnight. At the peak, there were more than 100 staff at MAGNT. Today the figure is 55, with further key positions remaining on the books, but unfunded or unfilled. The pattern of neglect and downward drift has been plain for years, and has long caused mild dismay in Darwin: no one, though, quite expected the anger and frustration that the latest budget cuts have brought to the surface. Protests from interstate researchers and curators have poured in, anonymous letters describing morale inside the museum are circulating, news reports chronicle the discontent, local insiders complain. The former chairman of the MAGNT board, lawyer Colin McDonald, is the critic with the clearest voice: “If you don’t have curators and you haven’t got a library or a librarian, how can you project to collectors, to critics, to the public or inspire the imagination of our children and go to the public and say this is a living institution.

“It ceases to be a living institution. And it’s a very important part of our heritage.”

Much has changed since MAGNT’s formation. Darwin is no longer a public-service town, a mini-Canberra with an engaged and stable knowledge class. Its accents are different. It is a little city of 120,000, with a youthful, transient population. Tradesmen and families with young children fill its shopping malls. Indeed, a temple of high art and culture is seen by some members of the bureaucratic and managerial class who run the territory as largely superfluous to Darwin’s needs. In an odd way, MAGNT symbolises a capital city that has long since vanished: the Darwin of the post-Tracy reconstruction years, a bold, brash place, built up by visionaries who wanted a new cultural institution of national standard, a beacon for all the north. Certainly the NT government has ploughed its funds into other high-visibility entertainment ventures in recent times: a wave pool and convention centre by the waterfront on the harbour, a new themed “experience” museum devoted to the bombing of Darwin – the cultural projects given priority have had a strong flavour of bread and circuses about them.

There has also been a distinct change in the composition of the Darwin art world. It is now a landscape of widely disseminated public subsidy. Over the past decade, vast funds have been poured into community-based arts organisations, and the commonwealth government’s support for national “creative” networks with territory nodes has grown in tandem. MAGNT is no longer the all-dominating centre of the art scene. A grandiose blueprint developed by the previous NT government envisaged increasing “participation in arts, cultural activities and events with a focus on literature, visual arts and crafts, music and theatre” – and this vision was locked in just a year ago with $6 million committed in multi-year funding for various youth and community arts groups, a writers’ centre, a dance troupe, a music bureau and a range of state-operated art galleries. In addition the NT government pours money into the local university, which, despite the distinctly demotic flavour of its suburban campus, sees fit to operate a lavish art space and run an exhibition program of its own. A new cultural precinct has just been opened in little Katherine, three hours down the highway from the capital: it has been given $1.25 million in operating funds over the next three years.

But this plethora of new shopfronts for the arts in the Top End has not been matched by additional resources: the culture budget has been largely static. Arts funding has thus become a realm with clear winners and losers. Over the past decade there has been a $2 million overall growth in arts grants made by the Darwin government, while MAGNT’s funding has stayed unchanged at $6 million despite annual staff salary increases. The explanation for this funding disparity is straightforward. It is a perfect case of client capture: the NT Arts Department exists to nurture the careers of artists rather than art. This is spelled out in the December 2012 mini-budget, which lists, among the “strategic issues” before the new Department of Arts and Museums, the bizarre goal of “supporting professional development, training and employment pathways in the creative industries, especially in the not-for-profit arts and culture sector”. The measures to promote this ambition are in place. Three state-funded contemporary art galleries stage their own exhibitions in the capital, showing work by a small revolving cast of locals, locally curated, seen by a tiny insider circle.

MAGNT’s Canadian director Arpin, a specialist in regional museum development and a supreme diplomat, is somewhat perplexed by the landscape he confronts. “Typically,” he says, “in other large urban centres the key collecting institution is well supported, and is quite central, and other places develop in a confrerie of engagement.” In other words: look after your flagship art institution first, and in its life-giving shade a creative culture will thrive and grow. This is very much the pattern with high-profile North American contemporary art museums and galleries, and the blueprint adopted by the great international gallery promoters and architects of the past decade – and it seems largely matched by the Australian experience in fast-developing culture cities such as Perth and Brisbane. But the fate of the north’s established city galleries in recent times has been somewhat different.

In Cairns, the regional art gallery is not the hub of excitement it was in its first years, while Townsville’s Perc Tucker regional gallery is pretty quiet these days. In each case government support has been drawn away by competing projects and competing ideas of what a provincial museum or gallery should be.

For MAGNT, the problem is particularly acute. It has by far the richest collections in north Australia, in natural science specimens, in Australian, Southeast Asian and indigenous art – indeed its holdings of early West Arnhem Land barks and central desert works are unmatched in the world. A museum and art gallery exists to show, and share, its treasures: a task MAGNT has been unable to fulfil for years because of funding constraints. Arpin knows very well the power of objects put on view: it was museums that made him an art lover as a child. “Somehow,” he says, “we are in danger, in our hypermediatised world, of losing hold of the fact that connection to an actual object, sight of an actual object, being in the presence of an object can be transforming. Only in that way can the institution, the museum, become the place of wonders, where you experience strong emotions: enjoyment, amazement, consternation, even, too.”

This leads Arpin, who was in Sydney late last week in connection with a Humboldt Foundation colloquium to be held this year, to his conviction that MAGNT must, above all else, operate an ambitious program of collection displays: “I’d like to see a properly structured program of research and exhibitions that has us sharing with our public the strengths of our holdings over a multi-year scenario: so you’d have an important exhibition of Australian art, followed by a vital exhibition of Aboriginal art – and you’d show those works in novel ways.

“Why can’t we have a more integrated hang so as to show contemporary art-making across the board, what’s being done across the Territory: art of today, whether indigenous or not?”

It is the voice of the visionary, not heard in Darwin for many years. How, though, to strengthen MAGNT for the future, and make such dreams real?

There is one significant pathway of institutional reform to follow, and it is being discussed quietly in the northern capital’s corridors of influence. Until 2001, MAGNT was an independent statutory authority, with a board that reported directly to the arts minister. That was a stable, even a progressive time – and reverting to that model is the obvious way of bringing MAGNT back into the light: making it once more a centrepiece of north Australia’s cultural and intellectual life.

Configured so, as a self-managed, self-defined institution, it would be able to raise funds from business in concerted fashion, it could run a serious acquisitions program. A world of innovation would beckon, instead of a world of key performance indicators and line-item reviews. Above all, the museum could present itself in its own character to the wider Asian region that lies at its door.

An unfulfillable dream? This was the vision that inspired MAGNT’s conceivers in the 70s. It hovers before the institution still, like the cloudscapes of Darwin harbour, on the near horizon, tantalising, just out of reach.