National art gallery plan divides families in Alice Springs
Traditional owners Peter Renehan and Benedict Stevens with Alice Springs town councillor Eli Melky. (ABC News: Ian Redfearn)
It was the grand proposal once mooted as a way to bring Indigenous cultures together from across Australia.
- Traditional owners have opened up on the family divisions that came about during negotiations
- The NT Government revealed last week that the project’s future was now under a cloud
- Alice Springs town councillor Eli Melky has travelled with two of the traditional owners to Darwin
Now, plans for a National Indigenous Art Gallery in Alice Springs are all but dead and buried, with key traditional owners vetoing their cultural approval last week.
Traditional owners have spoken to the ABC about their decision to veto the $50 million, job-creating project, revealing how it has divided the Red Centre community and put pressure on those at the centre of negotiations.
Arrente man Benedict Stevens, who was labelled by the Gunner Government as a “key traditional owner” and was seen as a powerbroker for ensuring the project’s cultural support, said the pressure and stress on him over the gallery plans had made him reconsider his support.
“I think I made a mistake, you know, me just being the only spokesperson,” he said.
“With the pressures coming towards me, I thought, ‘I need my families with me, I just wanted them’.”
Anzac Oval plan created divisions
Traditional owner Benedict Stevens says he felt under pressure to support a gallery on Anzac Oval. (ABC News: Ian Redfearn)
A lack of unity between Aboriginal families over the project going ahead on Alice Springs’s Anzac Oval was a major reason for its knockback, traditional owner Peter Renehan said.
“This process with the art gallery had divided the families, and that’s not right,” Mr Renehan said.
“We have a system that has been here for a really, really long time, that means that we have to make these decisions together.
“What this project created was division amongst our families, split us up.”
The Labor Government’s failure to properly consult with enough Indigenous families over the project was part of its downfall, he said.
“Those processes weren’t followed in this situation, it’s a flawed process from the start, and where we are today is because of that,” Mr Renehan said.
The Anzac Oval plan had long been marred by controversy, with Central Australian sporting and heritage groups against the move, which would mean the destruction of their main playing fields.
Traditional owners have now joined those ranks.
Last week, a letter signed by 10 traditional owners was presented at an Alice Springs Town Council meeting, which revealed they did not “support the use of the Anzac Oval site for that purpose”.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner released a statement the next day that said without traditional owner support for the oval site, “consideration will need to be given to the future of the project”.
No discussion with Labor
The traditional owners have not yet consulted with the Labor Government over their decision to veto the site, Mr Gunner said on Sunday.
“We are yet to hear anything formally from relevant people, we will have more to say once we have,” he said.
Both Mr Renehan and Mr Stevens said the ball was now in Labor’s court if they were to consider discussing the possibility of a gallery ever being built in Alice Springs.
“It’s up to them to come back to us and discuss more with the rest of the family,” Mr Stevens said.
No influence over decision: Melky
Families have been divided over a plan for a national gallery in Alice Springs. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
The man who presented the letter to council was Alice Springs councillor Eli Melky, who has long been against the gallery going ahead on Anzac Oval.
Mr Melky, who travelled to Darwin with Mr Stevens and Mr Renehan on the weekend, said he had been consulting with the Aboriginal leaders prior to their decision last week.
But he denied he had influenced their move in any way.
“I’m very very comfortable, in the fact that I’ve listened to the main message of the Alice Springs town community, including traditional owners now,” Mr Melky said.
“I’m listening to the people and I’ll tell the Northern Territory Government that they need to do the same.”
Alice Springs Town Council has invited the traditional owners to discuss the proposal further at their next meeting on January 29.