City of Port Phillip bureaucracy deprives city of painting

Works of art often have far deeper value than just their aesthetic appeal, their prices or their creator.

Over the centuries works of art have been destroyed by iconoclasts, burnt, stolen or damaged with graffiti.

But there is one work of art which will be characterised by a different fate – exemplifying much that is problematic about the City of Port Phillip (CoPP) and the way it is run. It is a relatively minor event but an immensely symbolic one.

Recently while visiting an exhibition at the Bayside Gallery in the old Brighton Town Hall I saw a small exhibition of recent acquisitions which included an atmospheric Arthur Boyd – Port Phillip Bay evening.

Boyd has a Council Ward named after him and lived in the area. The painting looks out over the Bay towards the north-west. It is reminiscent of some of the work of Clarice Beckett, another local resident whose work is being re-discovered after a stunning exhibition in the South Australian Art Gallery. She is also represented in the Bayside collection.

Chatting with one of the staff the person mentioned it had been a gift to the city after the donor had tried to give it to City of Port Phillip but was refused.

Now after many years witnessing the Council’s record it is difficult to imagine that any new bureaucratic or incompetent action could surprise you. Anyway, deciding to give them the benefit of the doubt I emailed the three Gateway Ward Councillors- Marcus Pearl, Peter Martin and Heather Consulo on 21 March this year.

The email said: “I was down at the Bayside Council Gallery on Saturday looking at some exhibitions including an exhibition of their new acquisitions. They have a Boyd Port Phillip Bay which they were gifted. Talking to some of their staff about it – it is a wonderful painting – they mentioned that it had been offered first to Port Phillip but the offer had been knocked back.

“I found that very difficult to believe, not only because it is a terrific painting of our bayside location with the city in the background, but also because it is probably (given Boyd prices) worth around $50,000. I don’t know the price for sure because whoever the donor was would have had it valued for tax reasons and that valuation would be more recent than my memory of Boyd prices.

“Anyway I thought, however unbelievable it might sound, I should check just in case.

Can you clarify the situation please? If the gift was refused was the decision not to accept it made by an officer and were Councillors advised of the decision? “

The Mayor, Marcus Pearl, responded promptly as he normally does.

“Hi Noel,

Thanks for your email, I found that very difficult to believe also. Let us look into and see what we can find out for you. Regards, Marcus.”

He obviously acted quickly because on the same day I got an initial response (albeit automated) from the Council staff saying: “Thank you for contacting us with your request regarding Any Other Requests. We will aim to action your request as soon as possible. If we need further information we will contact you to follow up.” (There was no follow up however)

After a couple of weeks, following up on why there had been no action,I emailed again: “A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the CoPP staff (some service rather than an individual) saying they had prepared an answer to my question about the Boyd and had passed it on to you. It didn’t say what the answer was. Have you received it and what was it?”

Once again a quick response from Marcus Pearl: “Yes – they did… I assumed they sent it on to you which I will now ask them to do.”

Four days later an email from Council staff finally arrived: “Dear Mr Turnbull, Mayor Pearl has asked me to reply to your email on his behalf. Apologies – there was some confusion with who was responding between us and I actually sent this to him on 24 March but understand it was not sent on. (Putting the politicians in the firing line is probably not a good – idea except for CoPP staff but nevertheless…)

The reply said: “Last year when Council was offered ‘Port Phillip Bay Evening’ by Arthur Boyd for donation under the Cultural Gifts Program, our 2021-2031 planning process was currently underway.

“As part of the planning process, all art and heritage acquisition activities were on hold including donations through the Cultural Gifts Program, donations (non-cultural gifts), and acquisition through purchase. In order to support the donor’s request that the work be received under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program and the associated financial year deadline, the donor was advised to contact Bayside Council so that the work could remain in a public collection close by.

“As the work depicted Port Phillip Bay further south, and as Arthur Boyd lived in Brighton and then Sandringham, it better suited Bayside’s art collection and the extensive Boyd family legacy in that area (including an eponymous council ward).

“The Councillors had agreed to defer acceptance of donations to our Collection and this had been discussed with them prior to the decision.

“The specific nature of this request – ie whether or not to accept the particular painting – was not brought to their attention. (emphasis added)

“We are undertaking a program of work to try and make our Collection more accessible to the community. It is felt that this needs to be the priority right now, rather than further acquisition. If you wish to discuss at all, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

The email was signed by Lauren Bialkower Manager City Growth and Culture. Only in local government – especially CoPP – would you get such a title and a description of their bureaucratic activities as a ‘program of work.’.

I replied: “Thank you Lauren. Your reply was much appreciated. I fully understand the position. In any bureaucracy planning, strategy sessions etc should have higher priority than receiving an important and valuable painting. And after all you wouldn’t want to consult the elected officials before passing up the opportunity to get a $50k painting by a famous artist. Who knows what sort of decisions they might want to get involved after such a precedent?”

There seem to be a number of lessons from this. First, Councillors have very little say in what goes on in the City. Second, the Council staff are constantly contemplating their navel before embarking on yet more policy and strategy planning which will suffice until the next re-organisation. Third, Council staff have so little flexibility and/or interest in Councillor opinion that they cannot even advise councillors that a situation has arisen which might necessitate reconsidering an aspect of an ongoing ‘program of work’.