Galleries coping with fires

ArtsHub speaks with four institutions impacted by the recent fires to share their lessons in how to cope during extreme times.

The line that has become de rigueur in recent weeks is to know your fire plan and be prepared to act.

The new norm is that bushfires are no longer reserved for those who reside in remote bushlands, but have the capacity to impact many across metropolitan fringes and regional towns.

Many of these areas are home to cultural institutions, while others – like the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – have toxic levels of smoke to consider.

ArtsHub spoke with four institutions on fire preparedness.

MANAGING SMOKE RISK

In a public statement this past week, the NGA announced it would close its doors on Friday 4 January and Monday 6 January, ‘due to the poor air quality in Canberra.’

‘Closing our doors allows us to mitigate any risk to the public, staff and works of art on display,’ the statement continued.

Director Nick Mitzevich defended the decision to close. ‘With the external environment 10 times the safe level, our building services team, conservation and registration departments have been on full alert since New Year’s Eve… Our job is to protect the national collection and to make sure loaned works are not compromised,’ he told ArtsHub.

The gallery site houses 90% of the collection by value with the other 10% stored in a fire-safe building also in Canberra.  ‘It is a very secure building that has no issue with air control,’ said Mitzevich.

One of the reasons that NGA was so prone to smoke impact was the age of the building’s air conditioning and filtration system. Mitzevich said that while rolling updates continue to improve the system, it has been designed as a series of ‘plant rooms’ and is a complex system.

‘The real issue is the volume of people and the level of carbon monoxide they create. We have to take in external air to keep the levels low. We have been acting quickly to intake clean air when we can, so our team has been on 24-hour alert. This has helped maintain the internal conditions.

‘My knowledge of air handling has gone from 10% to 90% in the past weeks,’ he added.

‘We have been tested with these unprecedented conditions, and we are holding up. The building has not gone into alert,’ said Mitzevich.

One measure has been to move access from automatic sliding doors to the former revolving entrance in order to minimise smoke intake.

NGA is not alone. Both the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) at Old Parliament House also closed their doors due to the smoke this past week.

‘That said, our buildings are very different,’ said Mitzevich. ‘The NPG has a relatively new air handling system, and took time to update it when recently closed. MOAD is the same as us.’

Mitzevich added that this will become ‘a new normal for us. It is a new level of consultation and faculty management not seen in Australia before,’ adding that Australia is recognised internationally for its high standards of museum practice.

When asked whether the threat of bushfires in Australia would impact the future capacity to loan artworks internationally, Mitzevich said no.

‘We have kept very close contact with our lenders, and they have been very understanding. Some things are beyond our control, and it is about the expertise of the institution to manage that,’ he said.

The gallery is currently presenting the exhibition Matisse & Picasso with substantial international loans that carry stringent insurance requirements. It has guaranteed that pre-purchased tickets for closure dates could be used on an alternative date before the exhibition ends on 13 April.

Bundanon Trust staff remove paintings to protect them from the Currowan fire. Image via Facebook.

ACTIVATING A FIRE PLAN

On Saturday, the staff of Bundanon Trust activated their fire plan. Some of its most prized artworks were removed from the North Nowra site on the Shoalhaven River and relocated to Sydney by professional art handlers.

The iconic 1100-hectare property, including the Riversdale homestead, was donated to the nation by the Boyd family in 1993. It narrowly escaped the Currowan blaze last weekend, with the Rural Fire Service called several times to put out spot fires.

The Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, thanked the Rural Fire Service for keeping a close watch on the property. ‘I commend the Trust’s staff for moving quickly to protect this culturally important collection, which includes works by Boyd, Nolan, Blackman and Whitely,’ said Minister Fletcher.

Bundanon Trust chief executive Deborah Ely confirmed that no buildings have been damaged to date. ‘We were able to visit today and all built infrastructure is safe, power operating and we hope to be on site after the tough conditions anticipated at the weekend,’ Ely told ArtsHub.

‘We have been very prepared for something like it for some time … Bundanon Trust has always (at least 15 years) had a highly evolved fire plan and disaster management plan for the collection. These plans and policies are reviewed regularly by the Audit and Risk Committee and the Board,’ said Ely.

The plan, which was upgraded in 2011, is an hour-by-hour plan directing staff actions and specifying objects of priority. ‘In addition the Trust staff enact planning scenarios on a regular basis. All staff are trained as first responders for the collection,’ Ely added.

The national collection is valued in excess of $43 million.

‘All high value works and archive items are off site, sufficient to present the story and Boyd Gift into the future,’ Ely told ArtsHub.

The Minister continued: ‘The Commonwealth Government has supported work over the past two days by the Bundanon Trust to relocate nationally important art works away from Arthur Boyd’s former property on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra. Those works are now in temporary storage and out of harm’s way.’

Ely described the situation as devastating. ‘It is a relief to know that the collection is now safe in Sydney storage, probably until our new fireproof collection storage facility is complete on the Riversdale site,’ she said.

Image via Facebook.

Ely noted that access to the Riversdale property can make it difficult to defend. She added today: ‘RFS have been across all the sites every day, while some parts of the site have presented challenges at times, they have overcome them. They have done a spectacular job of protecting us and we have been a high priority in the regional effort. They were still back burning on the property extensively yesterday.’

Bundanon remains at risk as fire conditions may worsen tomorrow and into the weekend.

In a win for the situation, a large number of works from the Trust are currently on tour as part of the exhibition Landscape of the Soul, curated in partnership with the National Art School and Barry Pearce. And activities at the site have also been wound down since Christmas in preparation for work to start on work on a new, purpose-built, underground fire-proof store and contemporary gallery at Riversdale.

Read: Funds confirmed for Bundanon Trust to build Boyd gallery

Bega Valley Regional Gallery Instagram post.

OFFERING A REFUGE

Bega Valley Regional Gallery (BVRG) is located in the southeast corner of New South Wales, slap-bang in the current fire belt. As their website describes: ‘a landscape of pristine wilderness, rich pastures, unspoilt coastline and boutique villages, the BVRG is the regions only publicly funded gallery and an outpost for contemporary visual culture.’

Despite this, the gallery has not sustained any damage. BVRG Director Iain Dawson told ArtsHub: ‘Being located in the CBD of Bega and part of the broader council facilities, the BVRG is extremely well protected.’

Dawson continued: ‘We took a decision similar to the National Gallery of Australia, to remain closed to protect artwork on display from the severe smoke, and out of concern for our casual and volunteer staff who were all enacting their personal fire plans during the emergency. We remain closed for this week and plan to re-open on Monday 13 January to normal hours.’

Similarly, like Bundanon Trust, BVRG activated its Emergency Bushfire Plan.

The impact of the fires, however, are felt long after the firestorm passes through.

‘As was demonstrated after the Tathra fires of 2018, the gallery is planning to be heavily involved in the recovery phase of the crisis and will act as a community space for quiet reflection. Our public programs will reflect the need for people to have a safe space to work together through their responses and emotions,’ explained Dawson.

Trauma – both emotionally and financially – requires deep support. Nationally, we have been witness to the outpouring of donations.

Dawson added: ‘The BVRG, like all tourism operators in the region, will feel the impact of decreased visitor numbers over the holiday period. Traditionally this is our busiest time and when we program our ‘must see’ curated exhibitions or tours, and as such we invest heavily in marketing at this time.’

‘Like many regional galleries run through local councils, we operate on incredibly limited budgets, as do our colleagues across the museum and gallery sector locally. Mostly these organisations are volunteer run and have the most basic of emergency and disaster recovery capacity. I have been contacted by colleagues nationally and internationally offering support which has been fantastic,’ he continued.

Read: Six ways artists can take action on bushfires

Dawson said this aim out of this time is to bring collecting institutions locally up to speed in disaster planning and their ability to recover into the future.

‘This is the new normal and we need to be appropriately funded to be prepared moving forward,’ said Dawson. ‘Our cultural heritage and identities need to be protected and this is especially important in regional and rural areas where long term infrastructure funding has been neglected. As such I would urge our NSW and Federal Arts Ministers to release funding specifically for regional collecting institutions to equip themselves for this ongoing challenge.’

The gallery has been lobbying to redevelop its current site and build a purpose built art gallery for the region, with plans to commence a comprehensive fundraising campaign early this year. That may have to go on hold now in priority to funding bushfire recovery.

The redevelopment has been costed at $3.4 million. Applications are currently sitting with funding agencies.

‘We find storage onsite difficult and we will soon have to explore further options if funding for the redevelopment is not forthcoming. This also impacts our ability to accept touring exhibitions,’ concluded Dawson.

The gallery is an important resource for its artistically rich and diverse community and works collegially with fellow professional arts organisations: fLiNG Physical Theatre, Four Winds Festival and South East Arts.

2019 Four Winds Festival, Bermagui.

SUPPORTING A COMMUNITY

Set on 30 acres at Bermagui on the South Coast of NSW, Four Winds was evacuated during the recent fire storms. Under threat was their Sound Shell and Windsong Pavilion designed by Phillip Cox and Clinton Murray.

Four Winds Chair, Michael Darling said that their signature Easter Weekend Festival (8-12 April 2020) will go ahead as planned. The influx of visitors to the region will be a boost for the local community, who will no doubt suffer as a consequence of the fires.

‘The good news is that, so far, neither the site nor our facilities have been damaged by fire. However, there are still many active fires in the area on which we are keeping a watching-brief, said Darling in a formal statement. 

Part of the mantra of Four Winds has been to bring the community with it over the past 25 years, working closely with local schools and stakeholders to truly make this a year-long embedded experience.

‘This is an unpredictable time for so many people on the South Coast including Four Winds. We will, however, bring you updates once we know more and once we can get back onto the site. For the time being, work is continuing off-site, where our team can work safely,’ he continued.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina

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