When persistence is a gallery: Bega to welcome SECCA

After repeated funding knockbacks and meddling politicians, Bega will finally open its new gallery this summer.
Bega's new regional gallery

Plans for a new, expanded Bega gallery – located on the lands of the Yuin Nation, on the far south coast of NSW – have been formally on the table for over five years, with the pressing need for space seeding the idea well before then.

The gallery went for funding in 2018. In fact, they felt so ready for the green light to proceed with the much-needed redevelopment and expansion, that then-Arts Minister Don Harwin visited the regional coastal community ahead of the 2019 NSW election and encouraged their funding application.

In late December 2018, however, Bega Valley Regional Gallery (BVRG) was told it was not successful in its application in the second round of the Regional Cultural Fund grants, even though in round one gallery staff were told the idea had merit.

Bega Council’s Director of Community, Environment and Planning, Alice Howe, told ABC at the time that the feedback Council had received from assessors had been very positive: ‘they encouraged our application at every step.’

The gallery tried again, and was ranked the top funding priority ahead of more than 150 projects in 2020, as part of the NSW Government’s $47 million Regional Cultural Fund.

However, it was with great shock that the gallery was again knocked back for redevelopment funding. Meanwhile, the nearby Mackay Park Aquatic, Arts and Cultural Centre in Batemans Bay – ranked 72nd on that same list – received $8 million. BVRG had applied for $3 million.

Subsequently, this week’s news of the gallery’s long-awaited redevelopment (announced on 27 October) has been enthusiastically welcomed by the community and the wider regional arts sector.

Bega Valley Shire Council announced that the new South East Centre for Contemporary Art (SECCA), a purpose-built contemporary art space, will be opened this summer.

Gallery Director Iain Dawson explained the reason behind the name change: ‘As the only public art museum across such a wide area, we wanted an identity that truly reflected the territory we cover. We also recognise where we are situated and the links Bega has to not only the south east of Australia but our region in the far corner of south east Asia and the Pacific.

‘The Bega brand is global and recognised across this huge space; Bega Cheese took Bega to the world, we want SECCA to bring the world to Bega,’ Dawson said.

Architects rendition of SECCA, Bega’s new regional gallery. Image supplied.

The news of the launch date is especially well received, given SECCA is the only gallery situated within a booming tourist destination, in a region hoping that this summer will offer a tourism bounce back after the devastation of bushfires, COVID and weather challenges.

Dawson adds: ‘The new SECCA strengthens the gallery as a cultural destination set within this vast and beautiful region of NSW. SECCA will be an open platform where art can flourish and an ever-widening audience can participate, connect, be inspired and experience the best local and global contemporary visual art.’

Political machinations cause for delay

The gallery made national headlines in May 2020, when it was passed over despite an independent panel placing it number one on their funding recommendations to the NSW government.

It was a trigger point that lead to accusations of pork-barrelling and claims that then-Minister Don Harwin had taken funding matters into his own hands. This followed an earlier accusation of Ministerial meddling in funding outcomes in 2018.

Read: Ministerial meddling in arts funding met by sector outrage

The experts ranked the 116 successful projects in that 2020 funding round in the order they recommended that they should be funded. The ABC reported: ‘A total of 56 projects were funded in 23 electorates, of which 20 were held by the Coalition.’

The gallery seemingly got caught up in a decision that was less about their application and its community need, and more about political expediency.

More than a name change

‘In early 2021, the gallery finally did get that go-ahead,’ Dawson told ArtsHub in earlier correspondence, ‘which will provide jobs locally and boost our economy when re-opened.’

With the redevelopment coming in at $3.5 million, the 30-year-old site has been revitalised by award-winning, Melbourne-based architecture practice, Sibling.

Qianyi Lim, Director of Sibling Architecture, said: ‘Bega Valley Shire Council have been incredibly supportive, with a future-focussed outlook on what a gallery space for the community could be and its vast potential as a cultural hub for years to come. This has been a long journey and a real passion project for me so I look forward to seeing the gallery open its doors.’

Dawson said of that persistence: ‘Bringing the community along with us on the journey has been so inspirational, they recognise the value of the arts, how that adds to the liveabilty of our region and the social connections the arts foster. Once the community could see our vision, the rest fell into place.’ 

The build has been supported by a $1.67 million investment from the Australian Government’s Building Better Regions Fund.

Read: 25 new galleries and theatres opening in 2022

The new SECCA gallery will include 500m2 of exhibition, archive, storage and workshop spaces. Most dramatic is a new façade – described as a veil of custom-perforated aluminium panels – that wraps the gallery and is broken up by expansive windows, allowing snippets of the exhibitions to be viewed from outdoors.

A further boon is an expanded exhibition space – almost double the size and height of Bega’s previous gallery. A new steel structure raises the roof up to 4 metres, welcoming natural light into the space, but also allowing touring exhibitions to be hosted by the regional gallery. For example, an exhibition like the touring Archibald Prize couldn’t fit before; the paintings were just too big for the space.

This is a massive advantage, with many of our state galleries scaling up their touring programs, offering a budgetary release for smaller regional galleries to present professional shows without the cost of developing them internally.

These will sit alongside SECCA’s signature programs, which have national visibility, such as the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award. There will also be a new digital media gallery, and a multi-purpose project and workshop space to present access and learning programs.

A cracker year to come for Bega Valley community

The political machinations and funding delays put the project a couple of years back, but now SECCA’s launch will finally occur and attendances can be maximised.

‘Can’t wait to announce our 2023 artistic program in late November,’ Dawson said. ‘It will be a cracker first year for SECCA Bega!’

A new 36m2 climate-controlled storage space will house the gallery’s collection of 350 historical works and significant loans, ensuring their protection for future generations.

‘This project represents an all-round positive return on investment for the Bega Valley community,’ Dawson said. ‘Besides the obvious social and cultural benefits, the larger gallery will generate significant economic benefits through increased tourist visitation and the additional expenditure that flows from that.

‘Regional galleries play a crucial part in Australia’s arts ecosystem, we are situated along the trade routes that send ideas, expertise and community back and forth between metro centres,’ he concluded. 

South East Centre for Contemporary Art (SECCA) will open in early 2023, with its inaugural program to be announced next month.

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