How an Australian collector’s strings-attached gift paved the way for a new $36m museum

Shepparton Art Museum opened late last year but a ballooning budget and conflicting local politics have made led to a mixed reception

Shepparton Art Museum has now opened to the public—but not all the locals approve of the new space Photo: ©Tim Griffith

Shepparton Art Museum has now opened to the public—but not all the locals approve of the new space Photo: ©Tim Griffith

Better known for canned fruit than contemporary art, the Australian city of Shepparton hopes its new A$50m ($36m) museum will help to transform the major food producing centre into a cultural hub.

Boasting one of the most comprehensive collections of southeast Australian Aboriginal art in the country, the revitalised Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) was kickstarted by the donation of a significant private collection from the philanthropist Carrillo Gantner and his wife Ziyin, of the Myer retailing dynasty.

With a keen interest in art and a country property a short distance away, the Gantners were instrumental in getting the museum project off the ground. They had long been regulars at the former SAM, which was housed in the council chambers. Then in 2013, the museum hosted Speaking in Colour, an exhibition of Gantner’s collection overseen by the then director Kirsten Paisely (now head of Auckland Art Gallery). He identified a mutually beneficial arrangement that would make SAM a permanent home for the works.

Impressed by the museum’s ability to engage the local Indigenous community, Gantner made the council an offer that was too good to refuse. “I got the idea that I could give the whole collection to Shepperton,” he tells The Art Newspaper, but with “two simple and very hard conditions”.

An installation view of Lin Onus: the Land Within at Shepparton Art Museum Photo: ©Tim Griffith

Against the promise of his holdings of Aboriginal art, Gantner urged Shepparton to build a standalone gallery and for it to become a not-for-profit company independent of the council. Councils are “not natural operators of major arts facilities”, he says.

Comprising more than 350 works by some of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal artists, the collection includes several dozen watercolour landscapes by the late Albert Namatjira; the “Picasso of Arnhem Land” David Yirawala; and contemporary pieces by Julie Dowling, Trevor Nickolls and the late Lin Onus. Conservative estimates put the total value at A$4.5m ($3.2m).

But council support for the new-look SAM has not been unanimous. Councillor Fern Summer has been critical of the museum since what she calls a “fanciful business case” found favour in 2014. “SAM was dangled in front of Councillors like a carrot… [the project] modelled Shepparton on major ports of capital cities such as Hong Kong and LA!” Summer wrote on her official Facebook page in 2020.

Initial estimates put the cost of the museum at A$30m ($22m) but the final figure was closer to $50m ($36m), with Greater Shepparton council and the Australian government contributing approximately A$15m ($11m) each, the state of Victoria providing A$12.5m ($9m) and a further A$7.5m ($5m) coming from private contributions.

As the budget ballooned, Summer successfully ran for re-election on an anti-SAM platform. “Councillors refused to look at facts… voted in favour of budget increases. The top end of town really played us,” she told her supporters in 2020. But by then the deal was done.

SAM opened to the public on 20 November 2021. One week later its artistic director and chief executive, Rebecca Coates, announced she was stepping down, having accomplished her main goals in the role, including completing a “world-class new building” that would be “a symbol of civic pride”.

Under Coates’s six-year tenure, SAM has acquired 588 new art works valued at more than A$8m ($6m), including the Gantner collection; established one of the finest contemporary ceramics collections in the country; and relocated from a lacklustre council-run facility to an iconic building that greets visitors to the city.

For Coates, the mixed reception from some in the community is par for the course of life in the regional city. She describes being stopped in the street by locals keen to express their “desires and fears” for the museum; in response “you have to be frank and fearless”, she says. The outgoing director believes the friction is partly because SAM challenges the town’s longstanding agricultural image, adding: “That’s not always going to be comfortable for people.”

On 20 December Shepparton Art Museum appointed Shelley McSpedden as interim artistic director and Andrew Gooley as interim chief executive while it searches for a new director.