Regional cities understanding the arts

Sydney-born and country-bred in NSW, I have always been impressed by my visits to rural Victoria, where state governments of all political views have encouraged the arts, heritage and, hence, tourism. Within an hour’s drive of each other, Benalla on the Hume and Shepparton on the Newell Highway are inspiring examples of contemporary vision. Both rural cities are planning to expand their visual arts complexes.

Benalla’s gallery is one of the most beautiful pieces of modern architecture in Australia. Sitting beside the water on stilts, a crushed box in white, it is reflected in the large lake on the Broken River, beside a bridge at the southern entrance to the town. The challenge for Architect Alan Powell was to extend the accommodation to house the café/restaurant and enlarge the galleries and storage, but to maintain the integrity of Munro and Sargeant’s 1970s design.

Powell’s imaginative (indeed, amusing) solution, to be presented soon to Council, is a large football-shaped – this is Victoria – structure connecting unobtrusively to the western end of the present building. A proposal as distinctive as the original building, it honours the prerogative of the first structure to express its dominant identity at the centre of this attractive regional city.

The Shepparton report makes a particular observation that should be in the mind of everyone who argues for the “economic” value of the arts. Shepparton will replace its present Museum, now part of the municipal administration complex, with an entirely new Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) on a site beside a lake near the town centre. In the words of the report, the project will “strengthen the economic and social base for the city, by encouraging a diversification of industry in the region, and significantly growing the desirability of Shepparton as a place to live, work and invest.”

Shepparton’s is a greenfield site, and an architectural competition is now underway. I asked SAM Director, Rebecca Coates, about the move.

The SAM plans are bold and ambitious, very impressive. What is the administrative structure for the new gallery?
The new SAM Museum will be a company limited by guarantee. At present, the Director and staff are employees of the Greater Shepparton Council. The SAM Foundation, created in 2013 to raise funds for the Museum, has committed to raising $4.5 million for the new museum and $8 million towards an endowment fund to support its activities. This model avoids the perception that funds and artworks are being given to Council, rather than the museum.

I understand the Gantners’ offer of their collection was a significant factor in your move to plan a new museum.
Carrillo Gantner AO is a continuing supporter. A member of the Foundation Board, he has been involved in the museum for many years through the initiation and ongoing support of the Sidney Myer Fund Ceramic Award, established by Shepparton Art Museum with La Trobe University, to provide a major international ceramic award and exhibition in Australia. This significant award offers career development for Australian contemporary artists working in the medium, enhances collecting for the Museum, and allows for greater depth in exhibitions and associated publishing. We run extensive education and public programs to support the Award, and other exhibitions; these provide a unique platform for cross-cultural learning and exchange. Carrillo Gantner has made substantial donations of works to the SAM Collection. His further offer of works of contemporary Indigenous art was contingent on the confirmation of a new SAM museum and adoption of a new governance model.

Artists will be at the core of the project?
I’ve always worked at art museums and galleries with this remit and ambition at their core. They work with contemporary artists, create opportunities for new works and projects, and share this work with a diverse range of audiences. Curators and other museum staff work collaboratively with artists, rather than at a remove. Exhibition ideas often derive from what is being explored in contemporary work. This can manifest in ways, such as commissioning new work, presenting exhibitions, scholarship and research and publications; or invitations to participate in talks, workshops and other events. Artists then are central to a museum’s activities.

What will your new residency program provide to artists and the community?
A residency program with studio space is planned for the new SAM. This means artists will stay longer, and gain knowledge of the museum, its collection, the region’s history, context and communities – a range of temporary and collection-based exhibitions enables local and visiting artists and audiences to engage with collections and artworks on display. Exhibitions will have strong local focus, while engaging with global contemporary themes. Shepparton has a rich and diverse multicultural community. It is also home to a large Indigenous community, a number of whom are artists or make work. Showcasing contemporary and Indigenous works from the collection and presenting a range of temporary exhibitions by leading contemporary artists enables artists to reflect and take pride in works by local Yorta Yorta artists and understand them within wider art-historic and socio-political contexts.


Courtesy Shepparton Art Museum (SAM)

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