Rural galleries seek 'the Bendigo effect' as architects tackle 'threshold fear'

Threshold fear, it's called. The phobia of entering an art gallery that only elites are perceived to own and a front desk that exudes intimidation. To combat that fear, state galleries have eye-catching signage, uniformed staff welcoming patrons and activities in the  foyer. But if a residual fear still exists in city galleries, it's often more deeply felt in country towns. 

"There is a tendency for regional galleries to be perceived as community centres for rich people," says Jan van Schaik, director of MvS Architects, who have consulted to private and public galleries in Mildura, Hamilton and St Arnaud. "But that's starting to change."

Denton Corker Marshall's proposal for SAM. SAM will house philanthropist Carrillo Gantner's Indigenous art as well as a nationally significant ceramics collection. Photo: Supplied

Denton Corker Marshall's proposal for SAM. SAM will house philanthropist Carrillo Gantner's Indigenous art as well as a nationally significant ceramics collection. Photo: Supplied

Regional galleries are now recognised as potential community hubs, while local councils harbour ambitions to emulate "The Bendigo Effect". 

Bendigo Art Gallery is the envy of galleries throughout regional Australia as the generator of $20 million annually to its local economy. Its success stems from identifying a niche – largely fashion blockbusters – that attracts visitors from around the country. But the gallery doesn't attempt to do everything, says director Karen Quinlan. According to its own postcode analysis, only 20 per cent of its visitors are locals. (Significantly as programs change, so does the 20 per cent mix.) Indeed Bendigo, with a population of 110,000, a large number of tourist attractions, and more community facilities, doesn't require one institution to do everything. 

John Wardle Architects' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

John Wardle Architects' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

"There's more demands on regional galleries [in small towns]," says architect Kerstin Thompson, who is currently working on master-plans for a gallery in Castlemaine and Arthur Boyd's Bundanon estate in Shoalhaven. "They have to work harder." 

Regional galleries represent local history and culture, promote a wide range of art practices and involve the public in educational programs, she explains. "It's this odd combination of formal gallery museum, but it's also like a community clubhouse. Meanwhile, there's the extra burden that the building has to be an attractor – a thing that gives people a reason to visit a local town."

Australia's Exhibit A for iconic regional architecture is Fender Katsalidis' design for MONA in Tasmania, with its "evil genius" style lair buried deep into a sandstone cliff. 

"Many community groups say: 'we just want a MONA'," says van Schaik. "But MONA's not a museum, it's a person. Show us your David Walsh. You need an eccentric committed individual." (Walsh, who famously made his fortune through gambling, reportedly spent some $200 million building MONA.)

Lyons' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

Lyons' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

Shepparton Art Museum (rebranded SAM in 2014), may not be gambling as much as Walsh, but it's investing sizably. Next month it will announce the winning designer of a new $36 million gallery. Thompson and van Schaik are on the shortlist, facing stiff competition from DCM, John Wardle and Lyons. 

SAM will house philanthropist Carrillo Gantner's Indigenous art as well as a nationally significant ceramics collection. Still the gallery will have to work hard. Shepparton is a half-hour further from Melbourne than Bendigo, and its population 40,000 smaller. It also has to entice a diverse community ranging from country squires to a large Indigenous population, fruit workers to hot-rod enthusiasts.

MvS Architects' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

MvS Architects' proposal for SAM. Photo: Supplied

So how can gallery design help conquer threshold fear and encourage the widest audience possible? 

"Design can make a museum more open and comfortable to use," says Thompson. "The entry sequence can be intriguing – stairs can offer an exciting journey by looking out to a view. A clear orientation is also important. If you can help people see where they are heading, they feel less stressed," she explains.

"How does the reception area feel? Does it feel like you're under surveillance, or is it obvious who you can ask for directions? It's the difference between feeling intimidated and monitored, compared with feeling welcome.

"The forecourt and grounds around museums are crucial ways to engage," she says. "External cafes and ground floor galleries with large windows for the public to view without necessarily having to enter make the gallery an everyday, almost incidental, part of life and, therefore, less intimidating." 

Kerstin Thompson Architects' SAM proposal. Photo: Supplied

Kerstin Thompson Architects' SAM proposal. Photo: Supplied

A car park under the gallery can also provide another activation space, whether as a gallery to display hot rods (as MvS propose), or a farmers' market for its famous food bowl (as Thompson suggests). 

Quinlan agrees. The ticket price may have deterred some Bendigo locals from the Marilyn Monroe blockbuster but an eight-metre high sculpture downtown depicting Seven Year Itch Marilyn was a great success, she says. "That's really important – to do things outside the walls of the gallery."

Unlike Bendigo Art Gallery and SAM, Morwell's Latrobe Regional Gallery isn't situated in lush park surrounds. But its newly announced refurbishment employs a similar welcoming strategy. NAAU Studio's design opens the facade of the art deco building with larger windows and shifts the entrance to the street corner. 

"If you can see people engaging in the gallery, that breaks down the intimidation of going into a cultural institution," says Ben Milbourne, NAAU Studio partner. "It's one of the golden rules of hospitality – 'get people in your front window'."

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