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Regional museums and galleries - from liabilities to assets - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

There are 1000 museums and 500 commercial art galleries across Australia. And I’d hazard a guess that 50 percent would benefit hugely from professional support.

The good news is that, as a result of interviews with national museums and galleries in Canberra in recent months, I’m predicting a new federal program to rejuvenate these facilities. There are two main triggers — the government’s current overhaul of the arts programs, and Minister Crean’s desire to leverage the arts on behalf of regional Australia.


There is a bit of a story behind this, so I’d like to walk you through it.

Rural and urban communities alike often don’t appreciate their cultural points of difference. This point was brought home recently in talks with Museums Australia (MA), the Canberra-based industry association. The MA’s head, Ms Bernice Murphy, is adamant that regional museums and galleries are under-appreciated sources of community identity and pride, but we agree that the issue is how to unlock the potential.

As flagged previously, there is considerable scope to get more of the collections of the ‘Big 7’ national institutions out of Canberra and into the regions. The reason is that they have a large proportion of their collections in storage — for example, the National Museum, sitting proudly on Lake Burley Griffin, has 96 percent of its collection out of sight in the industrial suburbs of Canberra. Similarly the War Memorial, Sound and Film Archive, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, National Library, etc., have a good proportion of their collection in storage.

However, accessing these collections is not a simple process. As these institutions are essentially the keepers of the national estate, there are strict loan procedures in place. As Bernice explained, “Art museums are geared up and ethically charged to take highest care of all works owned, and not to let works out of their care [even though a huge number of works may be in storage] except under strictest controls and regular checking.”

But when I broached the possibility of getting more of these collections out of Canberra, the response from most staff was positive. This seems to be because many of the staff seem to have come from interstate museums and galleries and thus understand their problems. They are also aware that Minister Crean has been dropping hints about more collaboration between the arts and regional development agencies within his portfolio.

The opportunity

There are three broad industry segments:

  • the state museums and galleries, which are relatively well resourced
  • the facilities in the bigger regional cities (Newcastle, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Fremantle, etc.), which are growing in stature, but face continual financial worries
  • hundreds of mostly marginal facilities in the smaller cities and towns.

The last category provides the opportunity. The norm is a collection of furniture, kitchenware, farming equipment and artworks cobbled together by local volunteers. These facilities are open only for short periods during the week and/or year, and get by with a council grant to cover electricity bills and so on. They don’t generate much tourism traffic or revenue, which is a great shame because when local museums and galleries ‘click’ they are powerful attractors of tourists, business investment and jobs. The great examples of Bungendore, Yarragon and Clunes are on our blog (www.investmentinnovation.wordpress.com).

Based on discussions with the experts, there is an exciting opportunity looming for the small museums and galleries. It lies in accessing outside curatorial and marketing expertise, marrying items from the national institutions with the local collections to create standout displays, and creating hubs to attract and hold tourists.

These agendas won’t be easy, so you need to be persistent and think long-term about four necessary steps:

First, your community must decide whether it wants to be seriously in this game, and that it has sufficient people with the energy and commitment to make it happen.

Secondly, you need to ensure you have a building that can meet the standards required for the national collection. This doesn’t mean you need a new multi-million dollar facility; e.g. there are precedents of old scout halls and commercial buildings being renovated to the required standard.
Thirdly, you need to identify the cultural product that would underpin your museum or gallery. Is it an agricultural, maritime, industrial, mining, environmental, forestry, sports and leisure or social theme? If it’s not apparent, then cultural mapping is generally advised. Local historical groups or universities can carry this out, but expert consultants also undertake this work.

Fourthly, thought needs to go into what businesses could be clustered in order to build complementary revenue streams and share business expenses; e.g. marketing, electricity, staffing. Restaurants, bakeries, antique shops, coffee shops, wine bars and newsagencies spring to mind.

Getting started

The suggested start point is a dialogue with the professional groups. Museums Australia fits the bill. MA and its partner organisations run numerous workshops and conferences where you can make the right connections. We can also help with the steps outlined above. 

Mental health - role for councils

The 2011/12 Budget provided $550 million (2011/12 to 2015/16) for coordinated support for people with severe mental illness, and their carers and families. The program is about getting services and support better aligned and coordinated across the various fields. These are:
  • primary care (health and mental health)
  • the state and territory specialist mental health systems
  • the mental health and broader non-government sector
  • alcohol and other drug treatment services
  • income support services
  • education, employment and housing support.

We’d noticed that the program guidelines made no reference to local government or regional development agencies. Accordingly we rang the Department of Health and Ageing to explain that councils and/or regional organisations of councils would be ideal vehicles for coordinating the various service providers, and that local governments are already variously involved in mental health; e.g. via social housing, outreach programs and alcohol treatment. The Department has promised to look into the issue, although funding would still have to flow via the non-government sector.

If your council has a strong interest in mental health, you should contact us, because the Department is open to ideas about collaborative partners.

Grants freeze

The Government’s surplus budget pledge has resulted in a freeze on paying out new grants, notably those offered by Commercialisation Australia and the Clean Technology Investment Fund. A Minister’s staffer says the freeze is a ‘normal part of the Budget process’, which is, of course, BS.

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction, clusters and accessing Federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network. He can be contacted at apdcockatoo@iprimus.com.au or phone (02) 6231 7261. Go to the blog at www.investmentinnovation.wordpress.com for 550+ articles on issues relevant to Local Government.