COMMENT: Gallery location not just about geography

Where should the new regional gallery be sited?   Should it be sited in Bega because the gallery has always been there?  Or should it be remembered that the gallery belongs to the region, not to Bega, and new possibilities should be considered?

At present there is a fantastic opportunity for the new regional gallery to be built where it can tap into the stream of national and international visitors coming into Eden.   The wharf extension is fully funded and when it is finished the stream of visitors is going to become much more regular. 

Consider these figures. This season, long before the wharf extension, 42,500 visitors will arrive by cruise ship.  On November 15 it is the Pacific Eden carrying up to 1500 domestic passengers and 700 crew.  On November 20 it is MS Noordam carrying 1918 mainly international passengers and 800 crew.  And on it goes.

Does it make any sense to build the new regional gallery in a location that would make it difficult for these visitors to access?  A location that also misses tourists who take the coast road and bypass Bega altogether?  

If the new gallery misses out on tourist income, it is doomed to be financially crippled and must rely on grants and rate-payers.  Bega residents might be okay with that but it is not fair to other rate-payers.

Lots of opportunities are missed if there is an insistence that the new gallery be for locals and not for tourists.

Bega Valley Regional Gallery has trebled its visitor rate which is wonderful and I put that down to the fabulous exhibitions that Iain Dawson has run.  However, the number is still only 12,000.  Compare that to the museum in Eden which averages 45,000 visitors a year.   I think that while the gallery is situated in Bega, visitor numbers will always be low. 

It has been argued that the gallery must be in Bega, to be closer to more schools as schools don’t have the budget for excursions that go beyond an unstated time/distance.  However, if the gallery had an income it could pay for transport, reducing the burden on schools and parents.

It has been argued that for the gallery to be accessible to all people in the shire, it needs to be in Bega.  However, being equitable isn’t simply about geography.  The gallery currently is open from 10 – 4 on weekdays, giving 30 hours a week for those who work, live, or study in or near Bega a chance to visit.   Everyone else in the shire doesn’t fare so well. The gallery is only open from 9 – 12 on Saturday mornings and then is locked for the weekend.  There is talk of extending visiting hours but Bega is dead on weekends.   I don’t know how you would get people to leave the coast to go there.

Much of the argument for keeping the gallery in Bega seems to be that Bega does not have much else so therefore shouldn’t lose the gallery.  That is a sad argument.  The decision needs be made based on what is best for the gallery and the region.  Perhaps we could look at having the regional gallery in Eden supporting a smaller gallery in Bega?

I am sure many people would scoff at the idea of that.  I hear patronising comments that Eden is suitable for a small gallery but not a big one.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Those people are out of touch with a rapidly changing situation. 

I have done some research on this. At Art on Imlay, the art and craft co-op on Imlay Street, at any time when a cruise ship is in Eden, they have 80 to 90 customers in the shop.  That number is not for the whole day – it is 80 to 90 people in the shop at any time throughout the day while the ship is in port.

That might sound fantastic but it is not what Art on Imlay is set up for.  They don’t know what they will do when there are 80 cruise ships a year and say they won’t be able to deal with all those people coming all the time.

Maybe we don’t want our regional gallery to be that big, and that busy, maybe we will decide to keep it as a small-town gallery but we need to have that discussion.   And that discussion needs to be based on an up-to-date understanding of Eden and the avalanche of visitors it is facing once the wharf extension is complete.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could work together as a shire and share the profits and burdens from the cruise industry?

With the port of Eden becoming a source of massive numbers of national and international tourists, with money in their pockets, and time on their hands, and no car to escape in - it makes a lot of sense to build a new regional gallery on the main street of Eden within walking distance of the wharf.

It stands to reason that you don’t deliberately create new cultural infrastructure in a place that is difficult for tourists to access. 

The Bega-centric view is that it is all about Bega.   Having paid rates for 20 years, which have helped support the gallery, I have found it insulting to be told that no-one outside Bega should have a say in where the new gallery is located.  It made me think that currently it is not a regional gallery at all.  It is Bega’s own gallery, just funded by everyone everywhere in the region, but owned by Bega.

The biggest argument seems to be that if the gallery goes there is not much left in Bega.  How about keeping a small gallery there?  We have branch libraries.  In a shire this size it makes sense to have a branch gallery.  And if the income is there, why not?  Bega could keep running those fabulous movie nights, which let’s face it are more for people in the immediate vicinity than for anyone else.  I gave up after a near encounter with a deer on the highway one night.  There could be master classes in Bega and Eden and maybe Bermagui too.  There could be a policy at the new gallery in Eden of holding openings in daylight hours, on weekends, when people are more prepared to drive.  A bus could be put on from Bega.  I think having an income would make a huge difference to what the gallery can offer to residents of the shire. 

If the new gallery is built in Eden, give the people currently involved every opportunity and encouragement to stay involved.   We could all work together, instead of thinking the gallery belongs to one town or the other.   I hate the current attitude that Eden people shouldn’t have a say in the gallery is located.  If it moves to Eden, I don’t think Eden people will say this is our gallery now, sod off.  The fact is that it would be more inconvenient for the gallery’s current volunteers who have worked so hard, but we would need and welcome their expertise. 

People in Bega may want ratepayers to pay for a new Bega gallery that misses most tourists and is open at inconvenient times but I urge them to think of the opportunities that may be missed.

The gallery has a chance to take a place nationally and internationally and it is a shame if small-town thinking holds it back.

This is the Sapphire Coast.  Put the new gallery on the coast.   Maybe change the name to the Sapphire Coast Regional Gallery.   Catch as many tourist dollars as possible while catering to local people too.   Have the gallery free for those who live, work and study in the shire.  Make visitors pay and use the income to hire more staff; have mini exhibitions at Bermagui Community Centre – which is more than people at the northern end of the shire currently get; have a smaller gallery in Bega, run school programs which provide transport; run outreach programs to other parts of the shire. 

The gallery could benefit from income, feedback and reviews from national and international visitors and grow up.  Or it could stay in Bega.