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Talk of City Hall move revives Newcastle Art Gallery expansion debate

HANGING ON: Director Lauretta Morton, right, and gallery assistant Marlene Houston arranging the Kilgour Prize exhibition on Wednesday. The winner will be announced at the gallery on Friday night. Picture: Jonathan Carroll Newcastle Art Gallery director Lauretta Morton won’t be drawn on talk of the space-shy gallery moving into City Hall, but she is pleased to see the issue back in the headlines.
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The Herald reported this week that Newcastle City Council was looking at options forCity Hall, including whether it could house the city’s $94 million art collection, after the council vacates the building in early 2020.

It remains to be seen if the restored City Hall has the space and technical requirements to house any or all the 6400 works that now jostle for room in the Laman Street gallery, a 1970s purpose-built edifice in the Brutalist architecturalstyle.Only a tiny fraction of the collection goes on show each year.

A 2012 design for the gallery expansion.

The gallery expansion has been a bitter saga in Newcastle for 13 years, especially during the reign of former lord mayor Jeff McCloy from 2012 to 2014, when the city was forced to hand back a $7 million federal grant after failing to secure state funding for the project.

Since then the state has continuedto snub the gallery and the council has toyed with the idea of using funds from special rate rises for the now $26 million plan.

Asked whether City Hall was a practical home for an artgallery, Ms Morton said: “You can make anything practical. That’s a question of funding.I have to say City Hall looks incredible. It’s a building I love.I would never say noto any opportunity that comes up, because we need to think what’s the right thing for the community.”

But it is clear Ms Morton’s priority is expanding the existing gallery. On her wish list are more exhibition and event space, a secure loading dock, a commercial kitchen and revenue-raising cafe.

Newcastle Art Gallery

“We’ve outgrown this building. Most of our collection has been given by benefactors to this city. It’s long overdue. I would love for us to be in a gallery cafe now having this conversation.”

University of Newcastle art history lecturer Una Rey said City Hall could play a role in a staged gallery expansion.

“I’d hate to see us lose that existing gallery altogether, but that’s not to say they couldn’t house some of the permanent collection in City Hall. Be creative,” Dr Rey said. “Those conversations require time and care, consultation, good architects.”

She said a staged project could startwith a cafe to bring in funds and audiences with the long-term aim of includingthe expanded gallery in a cultureprecinct.

​“We are moving a lot of our visual art and art history into the city campus next year, and we’re really enthusiastic partners with the gallery.

“There’s so much investment going on. There will be people in thatcity. The idea of a cultural precinct, it’s crucial the redevelopment of the gallery play a part in that.”

Various plans have emerged for the art gallery over the past 10 years.

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