By KIERAN FINNANE
An audit of government-owned land in Alice Springs will soon be underway to find a location for an iconic national Indigenous art gallery.
Chansey Paech (left), MLA for Namatjira and Assistant Minister on this project to Lauren Moss (Minister for Tourism and Culture), says he hopes to have a short-list of sites for community consultation before the end of the financial year: “Some very good sites have been flagged.”
The Territory Government has committed $50m to deliver the gallery, although a conversation will be had with the Commonwealth for further funding support.
Already underway is a process of appointments to a steering committee to drive the project, made up of national and local representatives, in particular of people with arts and cultural expertise, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Its membership will be announced soon.
The concept of this gallery is distinct from the national Indigenous cultural centre, which is being promoted by a group outside of government, Nganampa Anwernekenhe (chaired by Harold Furber). The government is supporting that work with a $20m commitment and is open to the possible co-location of the centre with the art gallery, says Mr Paech.
He says the vision for the gallery is to have it as Australia’s “premier destination” for experiencing Indigenous art. As such, the project will be a “major economic and tourism driver” for Alice Springs and requires a standout building. The government intends to hold an international competition for its design.
Mr Paech, Indigenous himself, spoke with brimming enthusiasm about his own hopes for it:
• it needs to be in a magnificent location, as “we live in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country”;
• it needs to blend in with the landscape;
• it should be surrounded by gardens featuring Central Australian bush tucker plants;
• it should have a cafe, run by Indigenous staff and featuring Indigenous flavours; and
• it should have a space for the performing arts.
Above: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, one of Mr Paech’s “benchmarks” for the Alice gallery. Interior view below left.
Is the Araluen Arts Centre not in danger of being eclipsed? Mr Paech says he is committed to working with Araluen and the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT to complement what is on offer, rather than undermine or take away from it. For example, Alice Springs does not have an outdoor performance space, apart from the amphitheatre at the Desert Park. So perhaps an amphitheatre could be part of what the national gallery offers.
The steering committee will oversee the appointment of a curator, whose work will start this year.
This raises the central question of what the gallery will show. What story will it tell, what collections will it draw on?
Mr Paech says preliminary conversations have begun with major galleries housing Indigenous collections interstate and that they are open to the idea of a national institution in The Centre because of its spiritual significance for Australian Indigenous peoples.
“They recognise that major Indigenous song and story lines come through here,” says Mr Paech.
“It’s the opportunity to explore and tell a very important narrative”, reaching back to pre-settlement and early contact years, through to the present. It could act as a “hub, the start of an important roadmap” to Indigenous Australia, stimulating visitors to further explore what its various peoples have to offer on their country.
Exhibitions will not be limited to paintings hanging on walls, but will encompass sculpture, installations, digital media, performance, delivered with a dynamic and diverse curatorial approach, not unlike, he suggests, that of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania. A point of difference he hopes for is the presence on site of contemporary Indigenous artists creating and interpreting their work.
He also says there is scope for the gallery to host exhibitions from Indigenous peoples around the globe: “That would tap into a whole other market.”
His benchmarks are the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and again MONA. Both have signature buildings, are major destinations within their cities, have ambitious curatorial programs.
Before his election to the Legislative Assembly he visited the museum in DC as well as a number of reservations and says he was impressed by American Indian nations’ deep sense of ownership of the museum as “their premier place”.
Since the election and appointment to his current role, he has spoken to the museum at length about their process, “what worked, what could have been better, how they engaged with their communities”.
Mr Paech says he wants to see “total buy-in from the whole community” for this project and is committed to deep and thorough consultation at every stage to ensure that.
To the suggestion by some that local Aboriginal people will never come to agreement, for instance on the site of the gallery, he says previous governments have been “playing my mob off against one another”, going to one group at the exclusion of others to get sign-off on what the government wanted. He intends to bring everyone into the picture, through organisations and outside them, through family groups, so everyone hears about the proposals “first hand”.
“We need to get this right, for Indigenous people and everyone in Alice Springs.
“I don’t want it to be another courthouse,” he says, referring to the new five-storey Supreme Court building which asserts itself like “a prong” in the middle of the previously low-rise town.
“I have still to find someone in Alice Springs who is supportive of that building.”
He says the gallery will offer important opportunities to employ and train Indigenous people.
“We’re very good at telling our stories through art but we are not often involved in the processes that come after, such as curation and conservation.
“University degrees take four years. We should be looking at young Indigenous people leaving school right now, talking to them about this great opportunity.”