IN the face of more than a decade of delays, dashed hopes and political debates, City of Newcastle CEO Jeremy Bath believes the redevelopment of Newcastle Art Gallery will become a reality.
"I'm more confident today than I was when I started in this job on the 15th May, 2017 that during my working career with the City of Newcastle, we will deliver for the people of NSW an expanded art gallery," he said.
While he wouldn't attach a specific deadline to the project getting under way, Mr Bath's current contract expires in December 2023.
But the biggest challenge to the controversial project is not time but money.
According to the council, the estimated cost of the project - at the moment - is about $36 million.
City of Newcastle is currently working through a series of "gateways" with the state government, seeking funding that the council sees as key to the project finally getting off the ground.
For its preliminary business case, City of Newcastle has proposed it contribute $6.4 million towards the $36 million target. On top of that is the $1.2 million the community has already raised, and which is held in trust. The council has proposed the state and federal governments each contribute $14 million towards the project.
As to Sydney's reply to the proposal, Mr Bath said, "We haven't had a response to that, nothing formal".
But the NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin had something to say to the Newcastle Herald last week about the redevelopment funding.
The Minister was at the official opening of the $2.3 million redevelopment of Lake Macquarie's art gallery, now named the Museum of Art and Culture, when he compared the two cities' approach to expanding their cultural facilities.
"I think there's a bit of a contrast between what's happening in council's support for the arts and culture between Lake Macquarie and Newcastle," Mr Harwin said. "Two-thirds of the work that's been done here [at Lake Macquarie] has been paid for by the local council. I've never seen a proposal yet from Newcastle council where they were prepared to put up more than about 20 to 30 per cent of the cost themselves. I find that absolutely extraordinary, given the amount of economic activity that's been generated by the state government in the city of Newcastle."
The Minister said for City of Newcastle to contribute only 30 per cent towards the project was "not going to fly".
"I think Newcastle City Council needs to become more realistic and, until then, I don't think it will progress," Mr Harwin said.
Yet Jeremy Bath has taken a half glass-full approach to the Minister's comments.
"I feel that while there was a little bit of a slap to the cheek in terms of the way the Minister phrased it, regardless, it was a positive comment, because he's now opening the door to us, subject to us getting through that 'gated' process with the NSW government, of actually having a conversation about them making a financial contribution," he said.
"Whether that contribution is $14 million or $7 million or $5 million, I'm very excited by the opportunity to sit down and have that conversation with the Minister. At the end of the day, we have to play by his rules, and if his rules are that the NSW government wants to see more from the City of Newcastle, that's something I can work with."
When asked could City of Newcastle contribute more, he replied: "As with all infrastructure projects, to contribute more means something has to miss out. So that really is a discussion that has to happen with our elected council, in terms of our budget."
Mr Bath ruled out imposing a levy to help pay for the redevelopment.
"A special levy on ratepayers is completely out of the question," he said. "I would not do that to people. I'm not going to ask people to pay for an expanded art gallery, if they don't want to dip into their own pockets."
Mr Bath said he had spoken with some "very wealthy people" who had expressed their support for the project but were waiting to see it launch.
"People need to know the NSW government and the City of Newcastle are investing their own money," he said. "I believe once it gets to that stage, the general public will make up whatever shortfall there is."
The chair of the board of the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation, Suzie Galwey, said last week that in addition to the $1.2 million already raised by the community, the foundation proposed raising "at least $5 million by 2023".
The foundation was planning to employ a philanthropy specialist to help the volunteer board with fundraising, as well as heighten awareness of the gallery redevelopment project.
"We're really committed to reinvigorating and refocusing this discussion in 2020," Ms Galwey said.
Mr Harwin praised the gallery's "great" foundation, and said "I'd like to do more".
"But I think this idea that Newcastle City Council expects the state and federal governments to pay more than 50 per cent of the cost of a gallery for the city is just not going to fly," he said.
Newcastle Art Gallery director Lauretta Morton said the 42-year-old building was in need of an upgrade, and that an expanded gallery would mean better storage facilities for the 6701 works in the collection, along with more space for exhibitions and education programs.
"A new gallery allows for a permanent collection gallery, with all of our icons out there for everyone to come and see right at the front of the gallery," Ms Morton said.
The redevelopment has been in limbo for more than five years, since a plan for each level of government to pay about $7 million collapsed. The council had to hand back a federal grant after it failed to secure state funding. Now the project's cost has risen, and the council's proposed contribution remains about the same.
Mr Bath said in the past, the council "did not realistically negotiate with the NSW government, in terms of the funding for the art gallery expansion project".
"I can assure you and readers of the Herald that today we are very realistic in what our contribution should be, how important this project is, and the fact that we have to play by the government's rules," he said.
"And we will do that. That is why we will ultimately be able to deliver an expanded art gallery in my career with the City of Newcastle."
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