Sadly, the story of institutions where First Nations culture – as distinct from their wonderful visual art – can be seen and appreciated is a generally unhappy one. Non-indigenous planners just don’t seem to understand the value of such places, though the politicians seem awfully happy to announce such projects, and then, behind the scenes, quietly pull back from anything approaching delivery.

A sort of exception, amazingly, may be the National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs – which, by definition, is primarily about art not culture. But in mid-November, after many years bickering over the site, the NT Government released a tender to construct the Gallery.

Of course, we’ve been here before in Adelaide with a smashing design for Tarrkarri (a full-blooded cultural institution) released, only for it to prove well over budget, putting everything now on hold. So in Alice, we have a fine design (pictured) produced in close consultation with Traditional Owners and a National Reference Designed Group, suggesting that “the $149 million National Aboriginal Art Gallery will be a world-class facility to showcase the strength and diversity of First Nations art”.

Not that they will actually own that art; it’ll be borrowed from other galleries, especially, I imagine, the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT in Darwin, which has a major collection of early Papunya boards which will surely head south.
Paul Ah Chee, First Nations Community Engagement Consultant for the project, agrees that the Gallery will celebrate First Nations art from around the country. “It’s going to be our cornerstone in terms of showcasing Aboriginal creative arts,” he said. “It also allows for other different aspects of Aboriginal culture to be showcased, which will be a centrepiece for the beauty and the wonder of Aboriginal culture.”

The official line is that this will be a First Nations-led and governed gallery – though its most senior appointment, as far as I know, remains the non-Indigenous Tracey Puklowski – with a cultural welcoming circle, a four-storey atrium, a top-floor event and function space, a ground-floor cafe, an outdoor public area, healing gardens to protect and preserve sacred sites, and a Kwatye (water) play park.

Meanwhile, in Canberra, the ambitious $316.5 million Indigenous cultural precinct called Ngurra appears to have stalled, nearly two years after Scott Morrison announced it. The recommended design for the project seems to be languishing in Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney’s office while she was having to be rather more engaged with a certain Referendum.

But that hasn’t stopped Scomo, that otherwise silent back-bencher, from complaining, “Until Ngurra is built within the parliamentary triangle, the built memory of our country will be incomplete, as will the continuing journey of reconciliation”. Not that Mr Morrison thought the Voice would assist that!

But he added that his government had fully funded Ngurra in December 2021 and formally announced it in the 2022-23 budget, but “18 months after the election, it does not appear to have been taken up as a priority for the new government. I sincerely hope this changes. Governments should be bigger than orphaning a worthy project simply because they did not initiate it”.
Ngurra is intended to become the new home for the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and TSI Studies (AIATSIS) as well as a resting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ ancestral remains when they’ve been recovered from abroad, also a learning centre. Indeed, earlier this month, Ms Burney was there in the old AIATSIS building to welcome some Warlpiri cultural objects back from Chicago. They’ll move eventually to Yuendumu.

Also in that building, AIATSIS will hold it’s annual art market from December 8th till 12th – also online.

Meanwhile, it’s more than a year since Sydney lost what was surely its last chance to house an Indigenous cultural institution when plans for Buruk – a national Indigenous cultural centre based at The Cutaway in Barangaroo – were scrapped.

This had been bubbling around since the days of Premier Mike Baird. And it’s belated demise was despite the completion of concept designs for the centre, backed by a taskforce comprising renowned arts executives Wesley Enoch and Rhoda Roberts, Sydney Opera House’s first head of First Nations programming. And a KPMG business case had demonstrated the centre to be an effective use of public money with a return on taxpayer investment.

Designs showed a performance space seating 500 to 600 people, an open welcoming space at its entrance for smoking ceremonies, exhibition spaces, studios and workshops for visiting artists, and a gift shop, cafe and restaurant.

All gone because a body called Infrastructure NSW didn’t like it. Not an Indigenous ministry, or an Arts ministry – but Infrastructure bureaucrats who preferred that First Nations culture be tucked away in the Museum of Sydney!

The Cutaway, they say, “While not a dedicated Aboriginal Cultural Centre, the latest concept design will continue to celebrate First Nations people and culture. The design approach for the new fit-out will respond to the Aboriginal cultural connections to Country that exist specifically to the Cutaway site and will continue to convey the history of the place and the people, with reference to Gadigal stories – past, present and future”.

Meanwhile, Arts Minister John Graham – he with crises developing over the viability for both major art galleries….AGNSW and MCA – is equally temporising: “This is a really important issue for New South Wales, that refurbishment of The Cutaway is unfolding. That space will be upgraded. The steps we’re working through are, first to get in place this overall arts policy [for the State], but I would regard it as a really important question for Create NSW to resolve what I feel is an obvious gap in the cultural infrastructure and offering. I think it’s also important that this discussion isn’t rushed”, he said, adding, “this has got to be deeply engaged with Indigenous communities, otherwise it simply won’t work”.

Nathan Moran, the man from Moree running of the Sydney Local Metropolitan Land Council, saw politics behind the whole disaster: “I believe the sticking point was not cost but the aim that the centre was to be owned and run by the Aboriginal community, a model adopted for the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne’s Federation Square”, he claimed.

Unfortunately, that very organisation has just had its own misfortune. The KHT’s expansion over three floors of its Federation Square building in Melbourne was due to be completed in August with a major retrospective of the work of Josh Muir, lost so sadly young in life. That won’t now happen until March, though the building itself reopens on December 9th with the 11th Koorie Art Show after renovations that took much longer than expected.