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Sarjeant Gallery Trust chair pushes back against proposed Whanganui District Council funding cuts

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Nicola Williams (left) with former government arts minister and current Sarjeant Trust trustee Chris Finlayson in 2016.

A proposed funding cut will compromise the Sarjeant Gallery’s reopening event and impact the ability to fundraise, the head of the Sarjeant Gallery Trust says.

Whanganui District Council is set to cut $200,000 in yearly operational funding for the Sarjeant – part of $1.5 million in savings that include disestablishing the Youth Council, discontinuing the council’s digital strategy implementation resource and reducing budgets for trees, shrubs and annuals.

During public hearings this week on the council’s draft Long Term Plan 2024-2034 (LTP), trust chairwoman Nicola Williams said she was “flabbergasted” at the news.

The gallery is scheduled to reopen later this year after 10 years of redevelopment.

“The reopening is Whanganui’s opportunity to shine and the reopening event must be the best it possibly can be,” Williams said.

“We want people to come, have a really good experience, and come again.

“To cut the budget for the Sarjeant now is going to be a huge compromise.”

After 10 years of hard work and the support of many people, the trust had to do the right thing by benefactors, donors, stakeholders, iwi and central government, Williams said.

The other trust members are Whanganui Mayor Andrew Tripe, former mayor Annette Main, former arts minister Chris Finlayson, Te Pou Tupua Keria Ponga, Dr Rāwiri Tinirau and new council-controlled organisations and economic development committee chair Paul Bayly.

As of April 25, Whanganui ratepayers will provide just over $17m to the Sarjeant Gallery redevelopment – 24.5 per cent of the overall cost.

Work is ongoing on the gallery's new Pātaka o Sir Te Atawhai Archie John Taiaroa wing. Photo / Bevan Conley
Work is ongoing on the gallery’s new Pātaka o Sir Te Atawhai Archie John Taiaroa wing. Photo / Bevan Conley

Central government funding is at $42.4m (60.8 per cent) and contributions from the gallery trust, community grants and donations, and the Preston Estate make up $10.29m (14.8 per cent).

“If we don’t deliver [the opening event] to a highly polished and professional standard, we won’t be taking advantage of this unique opportunity,” Williams said.

“There are going to be severe repercussions, quite frankly.”

She said removing $200,000 from the budget would also impact the role of the gallery’s head of development, who was in charge of “managing the brand” and fundraising.

“If we do not have the budget to properly resource them, they will not be able to get the $25m endowment fund up and running.

“We have $2.5m [in the fund] at the moment with another $200,000 coming through the door, which isn’t bad for two years.

“We have a lot of opportunities out there to raise money.”

The general operating budget for 2024/25 in the draft LTP is $3.6m.

Council community and customer experience general manager Marianne Cavanagh said compared to the original plan for running the gallery, the draft operating budget for 2024/25 was about $400,000 higher.

“This is mainly due to cost increases outside of the control of council, such as insurance and energy costs which have recently seen significant increases,” she said.

“The budget increase would have been even higher but we are proposing to make cuts to other areas that we can control. This includes reducing the general operating budget.”

Williams said the endowment fund would take a lot of pressure off the council in years to come.

“You [council] will keep the doors open and pay the salaries – basic operating costs – but the trust will deliver all the nice-to-haves.

“It’s going to send the worst signal to our benefactors if the council is seen to be reducing our budget when we’re going from being a Vespa to a Rolls Royce.”

Speaking to the Chronicle, Williams said the redevelopment project was for the benefit of everybody in the region.

“This will be a huge driver for the visitor industry and there will be positive spinoffs for our excellent Whanganui Regional Museum.

“Our ability to provide a worthwhile educational programme for our young, we don’t want that to be under-resourced.

“In our temporary premises, there were 4000 students a year but in the new, developed gallery there is the potential to really grow that.”

More than 120 people will speak to the council during the LTP hearings, which finish on May 22.

The council received a record 1600 submissions on the LTP.

Mike Tweed is an assistant news director and multimedia journalist at the Whanganui Chronicle. Since starting in March 2020, he has dabbled in everything from sport to music. At present his focus is local government, primarily the Whanganui District Council.

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