The future of Newcastle's esteemed gallery is in the balance after being undermined by its disgraced former lord mayor. By Joyce Morgan.

How Jeff McCloy nearly ruined the Newcastle Art Gallery

Former Newcastle mayor Jeff McCloy departs ICAC.
Former Newcastle mayor Jeff McCloy departs ICAC.
Credit: AAP Image

The sandstone Town Hall and the bunker-like Newcastle Art Gallery face off across Civic Park, a green expanse about the size of a football field. But there has been little civility in relations between the two institutions in recent years, during which time the gallery has been left demoralised and with an uncertain future. Accusations of personal vendettas and philistine decisions have been made, and the arts world has looked on in dismay.

A small but pivotal byelection last weekend has given supporters of the gallery a glimmer of hope. And hope is certainly needed for a gallery that lacks a director, has seen its $21 million renovation plans stalled, and has suffered while potential donors look elsewhere.

The byelection came in the wake of the resignation of the city’s disgraced lord mayor and property developer Jeff McCloy, during whose reign relations with the gallery hit rock bottom. The election of Labor’s 22-year-old Declan Clausen has tipped the balance of power on Newcastle City Council, which runs the gallery.

Unlike Newcastle’s other controversial millionaire, Nathan Tinkler, McCloy was little known outside the city until the dramatic events of last August. That was when McCloy told the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that he had given $10,000 cash in an envelope to the Liberal candidate for Newcastle, Tim Owen, ahead of the 2011 NSW election. This was despite a ban on property developers donating in NSW elections.

McCloy also acknowledged giving tens of thousands of dollars in secret donations to state Liberal candidates, describing himself as a “walking ATM”. In the aftermath, Owen resigned his parliamentary seat. McCloy quit as mayor and has launched a High Court challenge to the ban on political donations.

The saga for the gallery began before McCloy was elected independent mayor. He approached the gallery’s philanthropic foundation, seeking to make a tax-deductible $50,000 donation for a public artwork. But McCloy and his daughter wanted to pick the artwork themselves. The gallery director, Ron Ramsey, indicated that acquiring artworks was left to the gallery’s acquisitions committee, as is standard practice for public institutions.

“Ron explained that when you give money you can say what area you would like to spend the money on – public art – but you cannot decide the actual work,’’ says former foundation chairman Robert Henderson. McCloy and his daughter were offered places on the acquisition committee but this was rejected, says Henderson. McCloy made no secret of his displeasure.

So relations between the gallery, its foundation and McCloy were not off to a great start when he donned the mayoral robes in September 2012. McCloy and Ramsey are cut from different cloth. McCloy is a colourful, bullish man. Following the ICAC revelations, he celebrated his birthday with a novelty cake in the form of a brown paper bag stuffed with $100 bills. Ramsey is a quietly spoken former cultural attaché to Washington.

At the time of McCloy’s election, plans for a $21 million much-needed redevelopment of the 1970s gallery were under way. The federal government had committed $7 million, the council $6 million, and state funding was being sought for the renovation to be undertaken by Clare Design, architects of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. Owen had pledged to seek state funding and there was quiet confidence that the money would be forthcoming. Preparations were made to store the extensive $90 million collection, one of the largest held by any regional gallery.

“The gallery was packing away artworks; they’d hired space for artworks to be stored,’’ says Henderson. “No exhibitions were planned because everyone thought the gallery was going to be shut.”

But McCloy didn’t favour the redevelopment and suggested Newcastle Art Gallery should sell some of its works to fund any renovations. The state money did not come. With the project stalled, the federal money was withdrawn in July 2013 and reallocated to a suburban interchange. These were devastating blows for the gallery. But there were more to come.

Council held a closed meeting and narrowly voted for a controversial restructure in September that year. The gallery director’s role would be abolished and a “cultural facilities manager” would oversee the gallery, as well as two other council-owned institutions, Civic Theatre Newcastle and Newcastle Museum.

Two months later, Ramsey was suddenly suspended – a perplexing move, given his position was about to be axed anyway. No reasons were given. An inquiry was held, but its findings were not made public. Ramsey was sacked.

Ramsey’s demise came at the time he had been working to acquire a Brett Whiteley sculpture, Black Totem II, from Wendy Whiteley. The work, an 11-metre sculpture topped with a giant egg in a bird’s nest, now stands outside the gallery. McCloy indicated Ramsey’s sacking was connected to a complicated arrangement under which the sculpture was acquired, on which the Australian Tax Office is yet to rule. Henderson rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing.

Ramsey’s sacking and the axing of his position caused outrage in arts circles. Ramsey, formerly with the National Gallery of Australia and now at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, is highly regarded as an arts administrator. Ron Radford, then director of the National Gallery of Australia, called the move “bogan-like”. A former independent Newcastle mayor, John Tate, said at the time: “There is no doubt in my mind that there has been a vendetta against the art gallery by the council.’’

1 . Rebuilding the gallery's reputation

During his six years as director, Ramsey attracted about $12 million in gifts for the gallery. Since his departure, potential benefactors have become wary of donating to a gallery without a director. Among those alarmed is the Margaret Olley Trust, which withdrew $500,000 earmarked towards the new extension.

Marcus Westbury, a cultural commentator and founder of Renew Newcastle, says rebuilding the gallery’s tattered reputation will not be easy. The lack of a director might save money in the short term but will come with a cost down the track.

“Newcastle, through the way it has treated the gallery, has lost the trust and respect of the visual arts community,’’ says Westbury. “If you look at the assets the gallery has accumulated through having a series of directors, who have worked with donors, artists, philanthropists, and made very clever investments in artists at various stages of their career, that’s an incredibly specialist skill set. That can only be done with knowledge, expertise and relationships, which have all been sent out the door.”

Despite a larger population than Hobart, Canberra or Darwin, Newcastle – traditionally a Labor heartland – has never attracted the level of cultural investment enjoyed by those cities.

“Council carries the burden of managing a regional facility on the budget of what is effectively a local council,” Westbury says. “Successive governments have always underinvested in Newcastle’s infrastructure, and cultural infrastructure in particular, given the size of the population base there.”

The Newcastle Art Gallery has been integral to the city’s cultural life, says Linda Drummond, spokeswoman for local lobby group Save Our Cultural Institutions. Long identified with steelmaking, Newcastle has had a large number of artists living in the city in the 15 years since BHP closed. A strong gallery has the potential to attract tourism to the city, she says, as Victoria’s Bendigo Art Gallery has demonstrated.

“We are not a small gallery, we have major works,” says Drummond. “We hope we can now rebuild.’’

The foundation’s new chairman, Judith Hart, says the redevelopment of the gallery is crucial and a dedicated gallery director is needed. “Our relationship with the council is now on a good footing, and the current council supports the redevelopment,” she says.

Efforts are under way to revive the gallery plan. The council, now dominated by Labor and Greens, and headed by Labor mayor Nuatali Nelmes, has recently resolved to seek federal and state funding. So far, only the state opposition has pledged support, and the incumbent Liberal government is expected to be returned in a state election just weeks away. 

Clausen hopes his election will help revive the gallery’s fortunes and draw a line under a period of unprecedented acrimony.

“[McCloy] led a campaign that was designed to decimate the art gallery,’’ he says. “I am fairly confident we can get back on track.”

But getting the gallery on track is not straightforward. It was revealed last week that the state government rejected advice on a Newcastle light-rail network in favour of a plan that gives greater opportunities to property developers and will cost up to $100 million more. Such a figure could build Newcastle five art galleries.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Works on brown paper ".

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Joyce Morgan is a Sydney-based arts journalist. She is writing a biography of artist Martin Sharp.

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