Culture or cash: The $38,000 question at the centre of Maitland's art gallery debate

Who said what: Maitland Regional Art Gallery and (inset, counter-clockwise from top left) Cr Sally Halliday, Cr Ben Mitchell and Maitland Mayor Cr Loretta Baker.
Who said what: Maitland Regional Art Gallery and (inset, counter-clockwise from top left) Cr Sally Halliday, Cr Ben Mitchell and Maitland Mayor Cr Loretta Baker.

It’s the $38,000 weekly price tag that became the unlikely political football punted around Maitland council. 

In one corner of council, the Maitland Regional Art Gallery is viewed as a gluttonous burden on council, with funding going up year on year with little scrutiny. 

On the other hand, advocates say it’s at the forefront of the city’s burgeoning art scene, a vital component of Maitland’s ever developing socio-cultural identity. 

When a proposition to freeze gallery funding at the 2018/19 level hit council last week, it took a casting vote from Mayor Cr Loretta Baker to split the 6-all deadlock. 

Cr Baker has since defended expenditure on the gallery, which is estimated to operate at a $38,000 weekly loss in the 2018/19 financial year. 

It’s a sobering number, but one Cr Baker said had to be considered within the context of council’s expenditure on other community services such as parks, town halls and swimming pools. 

According to council, the gallery’s operating expense for the next year will be $2,425,000. The operating income is estimated to be $457,000, leading to a net cost of $1,968,000. 

We’re all different people and come from different perspectives. Obviously it causes a bit of tension but that’s the nature of the beast.

Councillor Ben Mitchell

Next financial year it’s estimated that council will also spend $3,010,000 on libraries (earning $308,000 for a loss of $2,702,000), $4,518,000 on sporting grounds (with income of $84,000) and $2,275,000 on swimming pools, which will bring in $646,000 for a net result of -$1,629,000. 

Cr Baker said it wasn’t appropriate to describe the figures as “a loss”. 

“We’re not a profit and loss organisation,” the first-term mayor said. 

“People don’t realise how much it costs council to run these things. The aim is to meet as many of the needs of the community as possible.

“No one wants to cut funding for these things (parks, sports fields and swimming pools), and nor should they.”

She said the financial spin-off from tourism to the gallery and Maitland’s burgeoning art scene were further signs of the gallery’s importance. 

“There’s an arts movement that is happening in Maitland because of the conditions we’ve set as council,” Cr Baker said.

The views contrast those of Liberal Councillor and Deputy Mayor Sally Halliday, who backed the proposed freeze.

Cr Halliday said her stance was rooted in “Liberal values”. 

 “I believe I was voted in as a Liberal, and, as a result, people expect us to look after money carefully,” Cr Halliday said. 

“For me, I didn’t think that (estimated cost for 2018/19) was acceptable.”

Party perspectives: Long-time fan of the art gallery, Cr Ben Mitchell, said his decision was motivated by "the facts and figures" surrounding the gallery.

Party perspectives: Long-time fan of the art gallery, Cr Ben Mitchell, said his decision was motivated by "the facts and figures" surrounding the gallery.

Cr Halliday added that, unlike the art gallery, community members pay to use sports facilities and community halls. 

“You pay to go to the pool, you pay to hire a community hall,” she said. She had suggested at the meeting that the gallery’s donation box was moved to a more visible public location. 

Cr Halliday and fellow Liberal Mitchell Griffin voted alongside the four Penfold Independents in favour of freezing funding. 

Cr Philip Penfold, who moved the proposed amendment, didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

The vote saw two Liberals – Cr Kanchan Ranadive and Cr Ben Mitchell – side with the four Labor councillors present. 

According to Cr Mitchell, deviating from the party line was both simple and complex.  

“In a way it wasn’t difficult – I looked at the facts and figures that were presented and made my decision based off that,” Maitland’s youngest councillor said. 

“The difficulty is when some of my Liberal Party collegues have an opposing opinion. 

Liberal views: Cr Sally Halliday said, after being voted in as a Liberal, voters expected her to "look after money carefully".

Liberal views: Cr Sally Halliday said, after being voted in as a Liberal, voters expected her to "look after money carefully".

“We’re all different people and come from different perspectives. Obviously it causes a bit of tension but that’s the nature of the beast.”

He said Sunday’s launch of Archibald Prize-winning art Wendy Sharpe’s exhibiton, which attracted hundreds, was a perfect example of what the gallery was capable of. 

“We don’t expect other council services like parks, pools and roads to make a profit, why would we expect it of the gallery?” he said. 

Want to have your say? Send a letter to the editor at lowerhunter@fairfaxmedia.com.au