Castlemaine art museum to stay open

An eleventh hour donation from an anonymous white knight has saved the Castlemaine Art Museum from immediate closure, with the $250,000 gift ensuring its doors stay open for at least two more years. 

About 400 members of the central Victorian gallery met at the Castlemaine town hall tonight to hear board chairwoman Jan Savage announce the last-minute reprieve. 

All that is known about the anonymous donors is that they are a couple from central Victoria with family ties to the district and who were regular visitors to the gallery.

“We see this as an opportunity to secure the museum’s long-term future and develop it as a one of the premium provincial museums in Australia,” they said in a statement released on their behalf by Sotheby’s auction house.    

Another $50,000 from the Macfarlane family was also offered to the 104-year-old gallery since it broke the news last month that rising costs and reduced revenue would see the venue shuttered.

The cash injections brought to an end a period of uncertainty museum trustee George Milford described as "the most distressing week of [his] life". 

Without the donations, it is understood the gallery would have fallen up to $400,000 short of the figure needed to keep the gallery afloat in 2017-18.

The full extent of the organisation’s financial woes was outlined by Mr Milford tonight when he said the gallery had become increasingly dependent on the trust to cover operational expenses. 

Almost $1 million of trust money was directed to the gallery the last three years, with about $160,000 of that sum spent last month alone. 

Creative Victoria will now underwrite a full review of the past five years’ finances, it was announced, part of the board’s ongoing efforts to find a sustainable funding source and governance model. 

The gallery would also open fewer days until a review was complete. 

Ms Savage said it was likely the gallery would operate from Thursday to Sunday, from noon until 5pm.   

Change to continue

The change in opening hours is just one in a series of shifts expected for the Castlemaine gallery in the wake of the crisis.

The board of directors. Picture: DARREN HOWE

The board of directors. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Unlike most public galleries, CAM is a non-government organisation independent of council, and less than 10 per cent of its funding currently comes from the Mount Alexander shire.

But ongoing support from the anonymous donor was contingent on the willingness of Mount Alexanderl to back the gallery.

The council's CEO, Darren Fuzzard, and mayor Sharon Telford, both attended the meeting, with Mr Fuzzard saying there was no talk at council to indicate its support would waver. 

He also acknowledged the economic potential the gallery offered Castlemaine.

"It's absolutely a contributor to a town renowned for its artistic value, and it brings the tourist dollar to town," Mr Fuzzard said. 

Board director Chris McAuliffe told members they needed to take an active role in the gallery's rejuvenation. 

"There's no sitting back and loving CAM," Mr McAuliffe said, imploring people with ideas to put them into practice, not share them on social media. 

He also said finding a distinct identity for the gallery was of paramount importance, emphasising the need to distinguish from the Bendigo Art Gallery and its schedule of blockbuster exhibitions. 

Still a concerned membership

Despite the cash injection, the board did not escape the consternation of members in audience on Wednesday, with the decision to keep tight-lipped about financial woes the subject of most questioning.

Ann de Hugard and Paula Pope. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Ann de Hugard and Paula Pope. Picture: DARREN HOWE

It was a decision Ms Savage defended, saying it was designed to protect staff from feelings of uncertainty. 

It was still unclear what the Wednesday night bailout would mean for the site's six staff members, who were told late last month their employment would be terminated on August 11.

It is understood staff were told of the new funding commitments before the town hall meeting but it was not yet clear what role they would play in the life of the re-shaped gallery. 

Opinions about the proceedings were divided among members leaving the Castlemaine Town Hall tonight. 

Member Chris Hooper said she felt patronised by the board's explanations of their fiscal management.

"Why would they go on spending when they didn't have much funding?" Ms Hooper asked, and also questioned the wisdom in staging high-profile exhibitions including shows from Ben Quilty and Bill Henson. 

She called for the directors to resign and a new board to be put in place.

More positive was volunteer Jacqueline Brodie-Hanns, who had confidence in the board.

"They're professional, experience and passionate people who know what they're doing and have been in this space before," Ms Brodie-Hanns said.

She backed the board's initial decision to close, saying the donations would not have been forthcoming had it not been for the state of crisis. 

Paula Pope was one of several women on the night who sold badges bearing slogans including "Save CAM" and "I'm here to help". Her sentiments were best described as cautious optimism, she said.

"It's great they've got some money for a couple of years, but I'm sad about the staff," Ms Pope reflected.

"I think its possibly that the need to get a lot stronger with their communication and to trust the members."