It was argy bargy front and centre at last week’s Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, during debate on whether or not to make an expression of interest (EOI) to the NSW Government’s Regional Cultural Fund, to refurbish and extend the Grafton Regional Gallery. Raised voices, points of order, worries about CVC losing its credibility, accusations of councillors being anti community or culture, apologies and the normally even tempered mayor on the verge of… At the end of one hour and ten minutes of debate and questions, councillors, apart from councillors Baker and Toms, voted to lodge an EOI “under the NSW Regional Cultural Fund for refurbishment and extensions to the Grafton Regional Gallery, and [that] the EOI include all known capital costs for the project”. Councillors Novak and Lysaught were absent. Councillors Ellem and Clancy moved to adopt the officer’s recommendation; however, two amendments were made to insulate CVC from unexpected expenses that might arise if the [EOI] succeeds. Councillors Kingsley and Simmons added that all costs of the project would have to be “fully covered/funded from the NSW Regional Cultural Fund, or some other external source at no cost to [CVC]”, and that “ongoing operational costs … be met from the reduced annual budget allocation”. The council will reduce the gallery’s annual $600k budget by $100k over four years – $10k this year and $30k a year until 2020/21. A second amendment removed any reference to the estimated $6.329m project cost, replacing the amount with: “the [EOI] include all known capital costs”. In a related agenda item, councillors unanimously supported spending $15k on appointing Ken Crouch, the general manager of Northern Rivers’ arts organisation, Screenworks, to develop a new gallery business plan. Mr Crouch, who is a Clarence Valley resident, has doubled Screenworks’ revenue since his appointment in 2014, “despite significant government budget cuts”, the report to council stated. Councillor Peter Ellem, who was a foundation member of the Gallery Foundation, read from a prepared speech that covered most of the issues raised by councillors supporting the EOI. He warned that hesitating would allow “other regional areas [to] beat us to this once-in-a-lifetime stream of cultural funding”. “We should not adopt a narrow or mean-spirited view of the gallery as a costly indulgence but rather celebrate and enhance it for generations to come,” he said, also highlighting that the foundation “in 12 years has raised around $440,000”, towards the gallery’s operation and that FoGG (Friends of the Grafton Gallery) had underwritten the “famous Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award … and donated equipment, furniture and televisions”. He said the gallery “houses one of the most valuable collections of artworks in regional Australia, with a current value of $2.3 million and comprising of 2,740 artworks” – the first stage of expansion plans, drawn up in 2011 and updated in 2017 (funded by the foundation and pro bono work by DRA architects), include raising the collection’s storage area above flood level. The second stage would create a new gallery space, earmarked for the adjoining site at 5 Robinson Avenue, which CVC purchased for this purpose in 2006. “Clarence [MP] Chris Gulaptis … is urging council to be first in, best dressed for round one of the NSW Regional Cultural Fund,” Cr Ellem said. Opposing the EOI, Cr Baker said CVC should wait until the cultural fund’s second round, and that he was “stunned” by the proposal, which, “two weeks ago I knew nothing about”. “Seven weeks ago we had a budget and we convinced the people of the Clarence Valley, despite a lot of opposition, that we were fiscally responsible,” he said. Councillor Toms said she couldn’t “really believe what [she was] hearing”. “In fact, I feel quite ill…. We are making decisions here on behalf of our rate payers for millions of dollars that we don’t even have a business plan for.” Cr Williamson said councillors Baker and Toms had “muddied the waters” and that it “was important to highlight” that any extra revenue raised through a special rate variation (if CVC applies and is successful) “would not be used on this project”. He said he had spoken with project supporters, who said, “‘if this does not stack up; it’s off’” and that they were seeking to “‘explore an opportunity that exists’”. Mover of the original motion, Cr Clancy, said in his right of reply: “To not do it [make an EOI] would be backward looking … grasp the nettle and just get in there and do it.” What the councillors said can be heard on the podcast on CVC’s website: debate starts at the 17 minute mark.