People will soon see the new Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) beginning to emerge above the ground beside Lake Victoria.
Having been involved for some years in the fundraising for this exciting project — and we have now raised the lion’s share of the building cost — the widespread community support throughout the Goulburn Valley for the project is really gratifying.
At the same time, I have also heard a minority view — I believe it is a small minority — that the project might be seen an imposition by wealthy city slickers of their tastes in Art on the hard-working citizens of Shepparton.
Why, they say, can’t the money be spent on things we understand better — sporting facilities, health care and other good causes?
Even though this is a minority view, and even though the money raised from government and private philanthropy is specifically for SAM and cannot be diverted to other causes, the wider criticism does need addressing as I believe that it is a serious misrepresentation of the project.
New SAM will be a powerful community centre as much as an important regional gallery.
This is designed into the architectural fabric of the new building as much as it is ingrained in the management and staff who now run SAM. It is expressed through the public facilities like the multi-purpose room, the roof-top function area, the cafe and rolling lawns, the outdoor amphitheatre overlooking the lake, the projection-friendly steel wall external surfaces, the community gallery and workshop, the children’s gallery, the Visitor Information Centre and the Kaiela Arts retail and workshop areas.
These spaces are designed to attract community celebrations and events not focussed on art, like weddings, parties, business functions etc, though I am sure people will also be aware that they are in a beautiful and special place.
Yes, there will be art gallery spaces too in about half the building! They will be wonderful spaces and available for community uses too, such as exhibitions around themes of local history or the migrant experience which is quintessentially part of modern Shepparton.
Very importantly, the resources of SAM will be an enormous boon for all three levels of education in the Goulburn Valley with programs focussed on providing opportunities for young people not just to appreciate art but to experience its making and its meaning.
As a university centre and education hub, Shepparton needs a first-rate arts and culture heart. The presence of an apartment for visiting artists in residence will help ensure that this is a place for doing as much as viewing. The Indigenous community of the region will find new pride and comfort in having their own art making included in a central role, not just inside the building but with the design of an Indigenous garden flowing down to the water’s edge.
SAM will play an increasingly important role as an economic driver for the Goulburn Valley, attracting visitors to stay a bit longer to experience both the permanent collection and visiting exhibitions as well as other opportunities in the surrounding areas.
This means greater income for local cafes, shops, motels, taxis, wineries and other tourist infrastructure. This is the so-called ‘‘Bendigo Effect’’, the enormously positive economic contribution that can flow from an attractive and well managed cultural facility dedicated to improving the lives of community. And, as in Bendigo, other creative industries will be attracted to Shepparton design studios, craft making and retail, IT, organic food providers and others.
Like many regional areas, the Goulburn Valley faces many social, economic and ethnic issues at present. I like to say that New SAM wont solve all of these but it will contribute to the solution of many of them. And how do you quantify the intangibles - the sense of civic pride and social cohesion that I believe will grow in the years ahead, the sense that Shepparton can stand tall, that it can retain and attract creative talent across many fields, and not just the arts? In my view, the majority of doubters will come around when they see the real benefits of this project.
There will always be a few knockers for anything new, especially when it is perceived as elitist, but I get particularly frustrated when people see the arts and creative industries as elitist. Apart from the fact that the creative industries are a very large employer throughout the country, everyone watches Australian TV and movies; they read books and childrens stories; they pay for their kids to have music lessons and dance classes (and these same children play computer games which are a hi-tech art in themselves); they think about fashion and design, even unconsciously, all the time in the clothes they buy, the cars they drive, the appliances they use and the packaging of food and beverages. We are ALL engaged in the arts every day, it’s just that we call it something else.
I am very excited about this project because I know what a huge amount of good it will deliver. I chose to get involved with SAM because, put simply, I saw the need was there, and there was a ground swell of people looking for something more in their local community. Bendigo, Ballarat and some other regional centres, let alone Melbourne, all have infrastructure and advantages that Shepparton currently lacks. This is not about imposing trendy city tastes on this fine community, let alone about outsiders big-noting themselves; this is about those of us who can, making a contribution to the public good.