Costigan / Dear Minister, our little gallery needs new vision

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IT was while I was taking in the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s (CMAG) 25-year collection celebration that it hit me that we do not get to regularly view the breadth and wonder of this collection and, more to the point, just how great the visual arts are in the city of Canberra.

Paul Costigan.

If you haven’t already seen this exhibition, do so soon, it closes mid June. I can assure you it is worth it. Of course with any such exhibition, the curator had to choose for the available spaces, so there are equivalent exhibitions sitting in the storeroom.

Canberra, a city of more than 400,000, is the eighth largest city in Australia. Yet our city gallery does not equate to the size of the population and the residents’ interests in arts and cultural activities. I suspect CMAG is constrained by the ACT government’s lack of vision for what such a cultural facility could offer as part of our local, national and international profile.

I can remember in the late 1980s taking the argument to the then chief arts bureaucrat that Canberra needed a city gallery. The response was along the lines – “That will never happen!’

Luckily, soon after that there was a new ACT Arts Minister and things happened – including a new Street Theatre, ANCA artists’ studios and the revamping of the Civic Square heritage building to include CMAG. That was a great leap forward.

Having observed the gallery for many years, having asked around about what people think and having visited a few times lately, I suggest that any appraisal of its future directions and challenges would say that it is well overdue for a substantial investment by the current ACT Arts Minister. Does he appreciate the potential of this gem in his portfolio? Is he up to the challenge?

Any suggestions build on the successes of the present CMAG – and in particular its dedicated staff. Attendance figures should never be the only criteria – but thanks to a range of strategies, including better signage (love those red banners), the attendances have increased from 42,000 in 2010-2011 to 218,000 in 2016-2017. Yet CMAG’s public profile continues to be swamped by the presence of the national cultural institutions.

Part of this could be that CMAG was hidden away inside a heritage building and does not get the levels of promotions that other cultural facilities benefit from. The current exhibition (“Celebration: 25 years of collecting at CMAG”) demonstrates that local visual arts, be they created by resident artists, visiting artists or works with a Canberra/Monaro theme, when brought together as CMAG has done, we have something to shout about. More locals, visitors and international audiences should know about and get to see this collection.

Our Chief Minister has used such clichés as Canberra is “the coolest little city”. Yet somehow he and the ACT Arts Minister have missed the fact that this well run city gallery/museum and its fabulous collections are overdue for an investment to allow the local visual arts in all its many forms to be appreciated by a wider audience.

This may require another architectural makeover along with maybe more storage as well as a budget to match the city size so that CMAG could buy more significant works, stage more local and imported visual arts exhibitions, and package up exhibitions to travel interstate as well as to cities such as Singapore.

So two messages here:

Dear Arts Minister, please invest so that we can all celebrate local visual arts so much more.


Dear CityNews readers, get you along to CMAG to see “Celebration: 25 years of collecting at CMAG” as soon as possible – and while there, make sure you leave comments in their visitor book about how we need to see more of the CMAG collections more often.

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday life matters.

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  1. Well said Paul Costigan about CMAG and a fitting tribute to that new Minister Bill Wood MLA who bit the bullet to appoint an Interim Board to investigate and recommend a site and plan of action to create our own local Canberra Gallery. Initially referred to as the Canberra Community Centre!

    Surprised as I was, it was a thrill to be appointed to the Board as a community representative to work with a lively group with a mix of professional, historical and cultural based interests. Also to chair the first Acquisitions and then Advisory Committees.

    However, despite wanting the content, capital government funds were not on the table so a credible alternative was required. We were actually pressured towards the old Kingston precinct but stuck to our guns that CMAG was to be connected with Canberra’s Civic Cultural Precinct. Fortunately the North Building was available for a reasonable, mutual compromise.

    Paul you are spot on. After 25 years of achievment by dedicated management, staff and volunteers it’s about time the ACT Government gave more than plaudits and self congratulations to enhance facilities housing a magnificent acquired collection spanning Canberra’s growth from Limestone Plains to City.

    Instead of tired cliches about Canberra being so progressive, let action speak volumes with upgraded CMAG facilities. After all brand new offices may come and go, but our heart and soul must continue to be portrayed and point to limitless achievements and possibilities.

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