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Discussion of National Gallery of Australia enhancement

Interview with Dr Brian Kennedy
ABC 666 2CN

30 August 2001

Compere: Louise Maher

LOUISE MAHER: But lets start with the National Gallery of Australia. Director, Dr Brian Kennedy, has backed down over plans to glass in the front door - a plan that had raised the ire of the building's original designer and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Dr Kennedy thanks for joining us this morning.

BRIAN KENNEDY: Good morning Louise.

LOUISE MAHER: Why have you changed plans?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Oh it's easy I suppose for this to be sensationalised as backing down, and being forced to do so. That's not the case at all. What we have been involved in is a process to find the right solution for the entrance of the Gallery. And the south-west corner was the point where most people entered the Gallery - which is where the existing portico is and where the ramps lead up to it.

And our competition last year was to select a designer - not a design - and to work up a design which could then be discussed. And we did that and opened the design for discussion in I think it was May, and at that point also entered into a dialogue - a formal dialogue - with the original architect of the building - Col Madigan - with whom we've been in extensive correspondence.

That process is now part of what's called the Moral Rights Legislation - introduced last December - and we invited Graham Jahn, the President of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects - to manage that process and chair it for us, and have had three full formal meetings with Col Madigan, and have listened very, very carefully to what he's had to say.

And that has led us to revise our views on where to place the entrance and to look again at alternatives.

LOUISE MAHER: Is Col Madigan happy now?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well I think he's a lot happier. I had lunch with him after our meeting last Friday and I think a lot of the heat and anger of, you know, his fundamental opposition, is gone - once I was able to determine exactly what that was - his threshold issue of not having that corner covered in.

What we had designed, had I think been very well received by the public and visitors, and indeed by newspaper articles, and was effectively a glazing in of that corner so that you would approach the portico - the existing portico - from inside.

And Col very, very strongly objected to that, and listening to him and discussing with him - in intense and in very, very I think fulfilling discussions - I mean, I think everybody round the table - and there were sometimes like 20 people around the table - found it very intense negotiation and discussion because everybody was listening.

Col was making a point that was very, very important. He managed to make the case substantially - that after 20 years it was still too early, and perhaps it was not the right decision at this time to cover in that corner. And I had discussions then with the architect, Peter Tonkin, we listened to that position very, very carefully. Listened to the points being made, and I think Peter Tonkin has shown why he is the architect who deserved to be given this very important job by his willingness to listen. It's Peter who has made the big gesture here.

LOUISE MAHER: You say that it is not the right time now to go ahead with that original plan - the glassing in of the front entrance. Does that mean that that might come back on the agenda at some time in the future?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well I think the fundamental issue really was about architecture, and about views about architecture. And some of these I think were well versed and raised by this discussion that we had. Is a building like another work of art - for example a painting or a poem or a piece of music - something that does not change. Or does it have that inherent quality which distinguishes it and to my mind, in fact, makes it superior to all the other arts - because it's the only art that lets go and is prepared to change.

Buildings adapt to function over time, and the needs for buildings change. So who's to know what happens in the future, but I think that what we are doing now - by our willingness to listen and to negotiate - is discussing the design with the original architect, having carefully considered with the selected architect what we believed that could be. I think this has opened the possibility for the future to look differently at the building.

And maybe to look back at what is happening now in years to come, and say well 20 years after the building was opened they had the view that they should not cover that in, and so we've sort of declared a heritage importance for an area of the building.

LOUISE MAHER: How much were you influenced though by this whole question of moral rights?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well I suppose on the one hand there was the moral issue and the legal issues which hadn't existed before. They've given a formal, I think, cloak - a formal envelope for discussions that should take place. But all the time - I mean from the very beginning when we started this, what we were influenced by was determining what's the right thing to do with this building?

We care about it very deeply. We all work here, we live here - effectively - and we do a lot of things here which are geared towards showing a collection to the public. So the functionality issues needed to be addressed. One way or the other, you know, the debate was actually about continually asking the question what's the right thing to do.

The couple of months that led to this fundamental decision, were about a sense of rightness. It's a bit like Louise when you're trying to buy a painting - you can't buy a painting or a sculpture or any other work of art and spend a lot of public money unless you're sure. Now if there's something holding you back and giving you doubts, well then you shouldn't do it. And that's what happened here.

LOUISE MAHER: So what is the new plan Dr Kennedy?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well the new plan is being developed, and we obviously have the benefit of architects who are fully familiar with every detail of the building at this stage. We've been working up plans - there's a little sketch in one of today's papers - which show that we're effectively moving from the south-west corner - where the ramps are at the moment - round to the side of the building on King Edward Terrace - fronting onto the road - and approaching the building - or investigating approaching the building, through the existing lecture theatre workshops and loading bay area.

LOUISE MAHER: What about the car park at the front of the building?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well one of the provisions of current planning in the parliamentary zone is that you can't reduce the number of car parks that are available. I think that's very sensible in our case because we tend to have some parking problems.

LOUISE MAHER: It gets a bit crowded there.

BRIAN KENNEDY: Yes, during major exhibitions. And so we'll be moving the car park slightly around behind the new wing which was constructed in 1998, but there isn't any impact on the sculpture garden at the moment - other than that we're going to appropriately maintain it.

LOUISE MAHER: When do you expect to start … is this new plan now set in concrete - as much as plans can be? Is this what you're going to definitely do now?

BRIAN KENNEDY: No not at all. I mean some journalists have been keeping in close touch with us, and they had heard that there was significant movement and at last Friday was concluding the process in the formal sense, but allowing it to continue informally with Col Madigan.

No, they're not set in concrete in the sense that we haven't actually fully designed anything. But what we're doing is exploring the possibilities in another part of the building. And obviously the benefit of any review is that we're investigating what are the cost options, cost savings involved - for example in less demolition - and what are the, what are the best benefits that can be gained from the money that we have.

The last design was developed when we didn't have any money. Now we have 43 million dollars to develop the building - enough to make sure that we're delivering - on behalf of the people - all the issues that we said we would.

LOUISE MAHER: Will this new entrance allow more gallery space?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Yes. We've called it an enhancement - a refurbishment and enhancement project.

LOUISE MAHER: I love those words.

BRIAN KENNEDY: Yes, the enhancement I think is to try and give a sense of development and of building on what's there before. There will be more gallery space. We're investigating where that might be in the new placement - we obviously knew where it was in the former one - but it's a significant part of what we're doing.

LOUISE MAHER: And if you're going through existing theatres and lecture rooms, will they be relocated? I mean you're not thinking of scaling back on public programs at all are you?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Oh not at all, no. In fact we're building up on them. There's an education area, an area for receiving groups coming in - especially school kids. In the last couple of years with the development of new institutions in Canberra, and older ones being refurbished - like the War Memorial, the new facility of the National Museum, and so on - we're in a situation where all the tour groups will be deciding they'll go to whichever facility gives them the best benefits. We are effectively a 1960s designed building, and the sort of democratic approach - which is very much the spirit of current ways of looking at galleries - will encourage people to enter in off the ground and to be taken up into the building - free access for everybody.

LOUISE MAHER: Okay, and we just … just finally Dr Kennedy, we've just had a call from one of our listeners who's just inquiring about disability access hoping that the new entrance will be much better than the current.

BRIAN KENNEDY: Yes well Louise that's something that I've been very, very strong about from day one. We are completely outside all our regulations in the way that we approach disability access. It is an appalling thing, and it is one of the major issues which has caused us to be able to gain funding from government in recognition of that.

Yes of course, it is an implicit part of what this plan will achieve.

LOUISE MAHER: And the time scale now? When do you think - are you able to even suggest a time when this might all be ready?

BRIAN KENNEDY: Well I don't know, I haven't turned too grey yet, but by 2004 I think we'll have it all finished - but we'll be doing significant works to enhance the building internally for the 20th anniversary in October 2002.

LOUISE MAHER: Brian Kennedy thank you so much for joining us this morning.

BRIAN KENNEDY: Great pleasure.

LOUISE MAHER: Dr Brian Kennedy is the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, and a change of plan now. The Gallery is not going to go ahead with that controversial idea to glass in the south-west corner of the building to make a new entrance there. It's going ahead with a different plan, following the concern and the criticism of the building's original designer Col Madigan, and other architects around town.