After more than five years of prevarication, the NT Government has awarded an Australian architectural company a $7.2 million commission to design the controversial National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Mparntwe. A local Alice Springs firm will provide assistance on the design.

BVN Architecture Pty Ltd, based in Sydney and Brisbane, was among dozens of tenderers who bid for the project. Territory-based Susan Dugdale & Associates (SDA) will meanwhile work with BVN to contribute “local expertise” on Aboriginal culture and design.

BVN will be paid a lump sum of $7,175,896.91, according to government tender details. The tender was released in April 2021 and closed last June. Decision-taking in Darwin ain’t fast!

The Alice Springs Town Council recently backed down from its five-year legal dispute with the Darwin Government over the forced acquisition of Anzac Oval for the NAAG and the ‘NT Independent’ has reported that the Gunner Government has done a deal with the Council reportedly worth $3.65m.

Building is expected to start in 2023 and the NAAG open in 2025. As well as the Gallery, the much-anticipated Kwatye water play space will be incorporated into the area surrounding the Gallery.

BVN is a substantial architectural practice, most notably designing the $65m Beijing National Tennis Centre for the 2008 Olympics. Last year it won two Australian Institute of Architects National Awards for a Defence project: Land 121 (Laverack Barracks), as well as a commendation for the masterplan at the Queensland University of Technology. Less impressively, BVN is remodelling the Sirius building, a former public housing block in Sydney’s Rocks area into luxury apartments, which many believe the should not have been sold off by the State government.

However, BVN’s green credentials are improved by their ‘re-ply’ project in New York. After the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, most NYC businesses barricaded their shopfronts with plywood. This material was destined for landfill once it had served its temporary purpose. Determined to find a second use for the plywood, the BVN team started the ‘re-ply’ initiative, a cost-effective ‘kit-of-parts’ for outdoor dining, to help NYC’s restaurants, cafés and bars to reopen safely.

The locals, Susan Dugdale and Associates have delivered a range of innovative projects for Aboriginal organisations in Alice Springs and across Central Australia and the Barkly, the government said in a statement. Indeed, they don’t seem to have done work outside the Territory – proudly stating on their website, “SDA have tasked themselves with discovering and developing a unique regional identity based on the particular culture, history, climate and geography of northern and central Australia”.

The government has stated the gallery will cost $150 million to build, and that it would contribute $50 million to the project. However, the government’s own strategic business case suggests that the cost is actually expected to be as much as $180 million, “dependent on factors including site and design issues”. The government has not indicated who will cover the rest of the costs of the gallery.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chansey Paech said that the National Aboriginal Art Gallery will be an “iconic example of architectural excellence that will be the jewel in Mparntwe’s crown. The gallery will celebrate Aboriginal art and showcase its cultural significance and beauty to domestic and international audiences. Much like experiencing Uluru, experiencing the gallery will be a must for all visitors to Central Australia”.

Meanwhile, in a not-unrelated decision, the annual Desert Mob exhibition of art from all of the deserts’ community art centres will cease to be managed by the Araluen Art Centre. The prime exhibition and market have both been held there since Desert Mob’s start in 1991. But, from next year, the whole event – including the Symposium, an initiative of Desart, the membership-based peak organisation for the deserts’ Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centres – will be run by Desart.

Could this be preparing for a move into the National Aboriginal Art Gallery after 2025?

Desart’s CEO, Phillip Watkins explained: ‘It became evident to me that Desert Mob needed to grow and strengthen its position within the wider First Nations calendar of events, such as Tarnanthi (SA), DAAF (Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair), the NATSIAAs (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Awards) and Revealed (WA)”. An interesting order of primacy – and no Cairns Indigenous Art Fair!

Where would you put Desert Mob in that pantheon, I wonder?

Desert Mob this year will open on 8th September