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Australian Centre for Photography shuts down

Australian Centre for Photography (ACP), a hub for Sydney’s photographic community, will sadly close its doors after 45 years, due to a lack of funds brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown, arts funding cuts, and falling workshop revenue.

Just this year the ACP announced new premises on Foley Street, opposite the ACP Project Space Gallery, in Darlinghurst. Photo Brianna Elton.

On Thursday the ACP announced the ‘painful decision’ to cease programs in Darlinghurst, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and ‘hibernate’ while it restructures to protect itself from further financial loss.

‘In the face of massively reduced income in the Covid era, and the reality that our organisation will not receive any operational funding from federal or state funding bodies for the next three years as a minimum, it is clear that continuing to operate in our current form is a pathway to extinction,’ said ACP chairman, Michael Blomfield, in a statement.

The ACP struggled in the last decade. Particularly after moving from the iconic 227 Oxford St building in Paddington in 2016, but up until now it remained a vibrant base for Sydney photographers.

‘However, the ambition and visibility of its exhibiting programs have waned over recent years, particularly since it sold and departed from… Paddington,’ former program manager and acting director, Blair French, told The Sydney Morning Herald. ‘We can only hope that a new organisation or a significantly rethought ACP will emerge from this situation.’

On the surface, the ACP didn’t look like a financially troubled organisation. This year it extended its premises by launching a new gallery and workshop space in Darlinghurst, and it continued to promote its exhibition program and courses.

However last year the ACP lost crucial multi-year funding from both the State Government and the Australia Council, and it was ineligible for ‘rescue and recovery money’ from the state’s arts funding body, Create NSW.

On top of this revenue from workshops has been on a sharp decline. In 2011 the ACP generated $995,000 from its courses, and this year that figure was just $110,000. Director and chief executive Pierre Arpin, describing the closure as another hard knock for the sector, pointed out the drop in revenue mirrored the fall in worldwide shipments of digital single-lens reflex cameras.

‘The world has changed and the advent of the smartphone and the iPhone is that everyone is a photographer,’ Arpin said. ‘I’m not sure it’s a crisis. It’s the evolution of the medium. As the medium started being recognised as a legitimate art form the ACP came to fruition.We’ve had decades worth of exhibitions highlighting some of the greats that started here in Australia. It’s not that the mandate itself was less relevant but maybe photography became so prevalent that it’s lost its special cachet.’

The Centre showed Tracey Moffatt’s first solo exhibition, early shows by William Yang and Trent Parke, and the first retrospectives of Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, and Mervyn Bishop. Plenty of other household names passed through the ACP’s doors, such as Bill Henson, who is ‘eternally grateful’ for the Centre.

‘We are perhaps, after all, entering unchartered waters with regard to both the political and economic landscape. Historically, of course, any historian can tell you that the diminution of the arts tends to parallel the rise of barbarism. But we shall have to wait and see,’ Henson said.

Legendary photojournalist, David Moore, conceived the idea of a national centre in 1970 and by 1974 the ACP swung open its doors, making it one of Australia’s oldest contemporary arts organisations.

Lisa Moore, the daughter of David Moore, highlights that the ACP wasn’t only intended to be a gallery, ‘but as an educational institution and as such one that could lead to the acceptance of photography as an art form’. It’s safe to say that this goal has been achieved – photography now appears at many galleries and museums around Australia. It’s safe to say thousands of emerging photographers, like Henson, will be eternally grateful for the opportunities provided by the ACP.

It’s a shame the NSW government and other funding bodies allowed financial support for a premier arts organisation to slip, especially given there are so few in photography. This comes shortly after the Victorian government allocated almost $7 million to establishing a new National Centre of Photography in Ballarat.

5 Comments

  1. Stig Stig November 20, 2020

    Selling the Paddington building was a major mistake. The replacement space felt like a huge step down to a shopfront and could never hope to generate the same level of interest in that location. There was a noticeable drop in the standard of curation, while it would seem the substantial proceeds from the Paddington sale haven’t been spent all that wisely. It’s certainly very sad that no state funding is forthcoming for a body with ACP’s tradition, but for all the history you’re only as good as your more recent track record. It’s difficult not to think that a more considered approach on various levels could have ensured its survival. To be continued?

    • Kenni Kenni November 22, 2020

      You’ve nailed it, Stig. As someone who was involved (pro bono) with the ACP back in the Alasdair Foster glory years, when it was a world-class institution offering the trifecta of galleries, education, and a beautiful photo-art magazine, all I can say is “what a tragedy.” And I agree that, post-Foster, poor decision-making was endemic.

  2. Robert Robert November 24, 2020

    Very sad.

    • Hamish Ta-mé Hamish Ta-mé November 25, 2020

      I wonder what happened to the proceeds from the sale of the Paddington premises? I taught at the ACP for over a decade when Alasdair was director, indeed it was the glory years when courses were full and openings packed. But as the industry changed and more competition evolved in the education sector they obviously didn’t keep up. Hopefully there’s some money still in trust and the organisation will look deeply at their potential role now and into the future.

      • Keith Shipton Keith Shipton November 25, 2020

        Hi Hamish. The good news is that there still seems to be several million dollars left in a ‘Building Reserves Fund’ – presumably from the sale of Oxford St. Here’s a link to the latest ACP financial report: https://bit.ly/ACP2019Financials. So there’s hope for a revived ACP yet. The bad news is that somehow or another, ACP has lost the support of its regular government funding bodies. To misquote Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one source of funding may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness!’

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