By ERWIN CHLANDA
Claims by the planners of the National Aboriginal Art Gallery that they are guided by the native title organisation Lhere Artepe are categorically denied by its CEO, Graeme Smith.
Sera Bray, senior director of the project, addressing a poorly advertised “public” meeting of about 60 people on Tuesday, mentioned Lhere Artepe about half a dozen times when people in the audience raised issues of inadequate consultation with Aboriginal people.
But Mr Smith says he has made it clear to Ms Bray’s predecessor, Tracy Puklowski, and to Ms Bray about two weeks ago, that Lhere Artepe does “not want to be dragged into consultation”.
He told the Alice Springs News today: “It is not our project. I’ve made our position clear, the gallery has nothing to do with native title, zero. It’s a government project, nothing to do with us.”
Mr Smith says Lhere Artepe’s participation is limited to holding two of the 11 positions on the project’s National Reference Group, occupied by Benedict Stevens and Vicky Lindner.
(The other members are from Darwin, Canberra, Tasmania, two from Sydney, the Kimberley and North Queensland, another two from Alice Springs. The Reference Group’s website also appears to name Muriel Williams as representing Lhere Artepe but this is not correct, says Mr Smith.)
Sacred sites issues in relation to the gallery’s Untyeyetwelye / Anzac Hill location were in the hands of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) – also mentioned by Ms Bray several times.
Mr Smith said the land does not have native title. It was owned by the Town Council and now belongs to the NT Government.
Ms Bray’s assertions about Lhere Artepe were also drawn into serious doubt when Shane Franey, a board member early in the gallery planning phase, took to the floor at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
He said: “We were not happy about what was going to happen. We were given the opportunity of talking to the traditional owners. The ladies came forward. They were spoken to about that women’s site [and] they said no.” A location south of The Gap was preferred.
Then compulsory acquisition came up: “Hello, they are going to take it away from us anyway. Your native title ran out. You don’t have any claim to it,” said Mr Franey.
“The government took the land.”
This was followed by an “if you can’t beat them, join them” phase.
“As Lhere Artepe we thought let’s get in on the action. This is where we can help our people. Employment. Have a say on what’s going to be built. Some of us didn’t agree with us, but that’s what is now going to be put in place.
“Inside this building we get to have what we want. Let’s make our own businesses. Art studios. A bit of culture. A place for ceremonies. People from overseas can see what we’ve got. A showcase of our culture, in beautiful Alice Springs.”
If the purpose of the gallery is to bump up the sale of cappuccinos in Todd Mall cafés then its $149m will be spent badly: The Gallery will have a coffee shop of its own.
It will also have a posh top floor restaurant. Those unable to afford five star priced meals need not worry: Mall market style food vans will be “encouraged” to operate on the grounds.
The upstairs-downstairs character of the “box design” is significant: The galleries will be from the second floor up because the ground floor is expected to flood.
“We had to get these galleries off the ground” to protect artwork worth “perhaps millions of dollars,” Ms Bray told the meeting, held at Witchetty’s in the Araluen Centre – feared to become a loser in the ranking as the premier local arts destination, now 40 years old, built with massive local support.
Much of Tuesday’s crowd looked like they had something they wanted to get off their chests, and come question time, they did.
Sculptor Dan Murphy leapt to his feet, asking if the gallery’s planners had spoken with senior women custodians (apmereke artweyes and their kwerterngerles) after the controversial choice to plonk the gallery next to Untyeyetwelye / Anzac Hill – their sacred site.
Mr Murphy recalled a lengthy meeting when these custodians and Mparntwe families “gave a unanimous and emphatic no” to the site. Has there been a meeting again with that family, Mr Murphy asked.
Big applause from the audience but, sorry, wrong question.
Tuesday’s meeting clearly was meant to be a gathering such as the recent members-only AGM of Tourism Central Australia, attended by 130, at which it was Ms Bray who got the accolades, according to CEO Danial Rochford.
Ms Bray stressed that she’d been on board only since November. She has previously worked in construction in Australia and overseas – no project mentioned – as well as at the Central Land Council with “economic aspirations” of TOs.
As a newcomer to the project although an Alice local, she says: “I can’t talk about what’s happened in the past.”
That was a repeated theme of the meeting: The people deeply involved in the scandalous early development of the project were not present to answer questions.
“What I can speak to is that those traditional owners have voluntarily put themselves forward to be part of this project.
“We all know projects cause divisions.”
All’s good with race relations, Ms Bray insisted repeatedly: Lhere Artepe is fully on board, she claimed, and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) has cleared the site.
“My focus is now to restore and put back and protect those sacred sites that have been damaged through loose agreements back in the day when culture existed in that site.”
The meeting had got off to a bad start when the audio volume of a visual presentation could not be turned up.
Was it on purpose? Official silence in answer to any hard questions has been a character of the project since it got cracking in earnest in 2017.
There was much discussion about the size of the building relative to Anzac Hill: “It doesn’t block out Anzac Hill,” stressed Ms Bray.
That was yet another example of the absurd secrecy engulfing the project. A drawing was put on the screen at the meeting showing the outline of the gallery building in front of Anzac Hill. “It doesn’t block out anything” is clear fabrication – it blocks out about half.
That drawing is presumably shown at all presentations but it was denied to the Alice Springs News. Why? “Unfortunately, we can’t share the image … as it is an architectural drawing not for public distribution.”
The project has been about 10 years under discussion but really hit the road in 2017 and now, six years later, has reached just 15% of completion with “more work ahead of us”: Working on initial scoping reports, initial strategies, gross regional product, visitation, can the gallery attract people to stay longer. Crunching data. Economic boost … and so on without any lucid detail.
“In 20/21 there were reports to consider, there was a business case to consider. We started to see the vehicle getting into first gear.”
The report from “Auntie Hetti [Perkins] and Brother Phillip [Watkins]” was a diligent work, causing major uproar when it was first not released, then sidelined. It proposed putting the gallery in the Desert Park. Ms Bray recorded it as having Anzac “identified by the NT Government and legally and formally acquired from the Alice Springs Town Council”.
SPEAKER IN THE AUDIENCE complaining about “this monstrosity” at one of the town’s most beautiful sites.
BRAY: “I appreciate your opinion … The site has been acquired by the NT Government legally and now I’m telling you the project is going forward.”
FROM THE AUDIENCE: The present cultural precinct, 40 years old and the result of community pressure to have it built, Desert Mob, the Namatjira collection – what will be happening to them? (Applause.)
BRAY: Working in partnership with the gallery, encouraging visits to art groups in regional centres out bush. Not working in isolation. “It’s not about taking away any art and putting it into the gallery.” It’s another place for Desert Mob to help. “Why can’t we have one Desert Mob at Araluen and one over there. In town.” Desert Mob can be better and bigger.
FROM THE AUDIENCE: What conversation is there between Araluen and the gallery?
BRAY: Sharing expert art staff, exchanging programs, joint up-skilling people. “Both ways. Absolutely.”
“Materials” including the outside skin of the building are still a work in progress: “I can’t talk about materials yet.” The outside “skin” material, which may be transparent, will need to cope with heat.
FROM THE AUDIENCE: Why was the location changed from south of The Gap?
BRAY: Led by the NT Government, mainly to reactivate the CBD. “I wasn’t around when the decision had been made.”
FROM THE AUDIENCE: Let’s scrap this site and start again.
BRAY: “I’ll take that on notice.”
Is this not the final design? According to the official time line, construction will start in April or May next year and “gallery construction complete March 2027”. But this is a “forecast project schedule subject to change”.
FROM THE AUDIENCE: “It just seems crazy” to build the gallery where it is exposed to flooding.
BRAY: “Thank you for your comment.”
That’s about when Ms Bray remembered she had a flight to catch.
IMAGE AT TOP: Sara Bray and Shane Franey at Tuesday’s information meeting.