Cessnock has lost its culture: Cessnock Regional Art Gallery vice-chair James Whitington

CONCERNS: Cessnock Regional Art Gallery vice-chair James Whitington said Cessnock Council has done little to foster local culture.
CONCERNS: Cessnock Regional Art Gallery vice-chair James Whitington said Cessnock Council has done little to foster local culture.

The sale of Cessnock Town Hall was the beginning of the city's "cultural rot" and there has been little done by Cessnock Council since to revive it, according to the vice chairman of Cessnock Regional Art Gallery.

"When you discuss culture in Cessnock, people always say it was lost when the town hall was sold," said CRAG chair James Whitington.

"It was the soul of the community. When council sold it, I think it just shattered everybody.

"Cessnock did have a very healthy cultural scene. They used to fill the hall with artwork once a year for an annual exhibition."

Mr Whitington said while council provided the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery building rent-free to operate from, the gallery paid running costs which it funded through the volunteers holding barbecues at Bunnings.

He said yearly costs were roughly $30,000.

"It limps along precariously," Mr Whitington said. "It's like there's a guillotine hanging over its head. It's always like, will we get another year?

"It's just a matter of begging. It's very stressful."

And because the gallery does not receive council support, it can't apply for some types of grant funding.

Regional Arts NSW told the gallery because council did not contribute to a Regional Arts Development Organisation, Cessnock "sadly cannot receive cultural development support".

It said Cessnock was classed as "regional" and thus was eligible for the Country Arts Support Program, but that "non-contributing council areas compete in a state-wide pool rather than region based, and it is a smaller pool of money".

A council spokesperson said council had supported the gallery since its inception including buying the building and car park and at times, providing cash contributions.

Council last provided a contribution in 2013-14 but rejected an emergency request for $36,000 in 2015. Council has also awarded the gallery a number of small cultural grants.

Council also said the construction of Cessnock Performing Arts Centre in 2008 as adding "great depth to the cultural fabric of Cessnock".

"Council is proud of this facility. In 2018, there were 56 productions hosted at CPAC and 2019 is also shaping up to be another fantastic year," the spokesperson said.

"The centre is used by many cultural groups supporting cultural development in the local area."

But Mr Whitington said while Cessnock Performing Arts Centre was great, he did not believe it was a space that catered for up and coming local performers, but rather travelling artists.

"It does bring in culture, but there's nothing coming from within," he said.

"There's nowhere for musicians to get together and have concerts. There's nowhere for drama groups."

Mr Whitington said mayor Bob Pynsent had been to the art gallery to talk about its future, but he got the impression that council did not want to spend the money on it.

"It makes me wonder if they're afraid of culture," Mr Whitington said.

He pointed to Singleton Council, which was awarded $2.79million from the NSW Government to construct a $3.5 million new arts and cultural centre for a local government area that has half the population that Cessnock does.

"Singleton has recognised the need to foster its local creative people," Mr Whitington said.

"I would like to see what Singleton has done as a model."

He said CPAC could be used in a similar way, but there would need to be a "dramatic change" to the way it operated.

Mr Whitington said while art and culture may not produce a high dollar figure return, they added great value to communities in other ways.

"It provides a sense of belonging, a sense of place, of connection," he said.

"There's a lot of crime in Cessnock. It could give kids something to do."