I was recently in Ballarat for the evening and stayed in a hotel which happened to be a couple of doors up from the old Union Bank Building in Lydiard Street – the ‘Home of the National Centre of Photography’.
Being Tightarse Tuesday, we didn’t stay in the salubrious and iconic Goldrush-era Craig’s Royal Hotel nearby, which has been superbly renovated, but an older hotel – the Ansonian – which was still awaiting its makeover. As is, over four years after its purchase by the BIFB, the old Union Bank Building! Far from being the centre for anything, the Union Bank Building is the ugly duckling in an otherwise attractive historic streetscape – Lydiard Street North must be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved streets in Australia.
The building was purchased in 2018 for $1.3 million by BIFB, then under the administration of Fiona Sweet. At the time she put a $700,000 price tag on the renovation. This is what we reported at the time: ‘It is a 155-year-old building in need of refurbishment, and the development plans are way beyond a simple renovation. The National Centre of Photography will consist of: the BIFB offices; two galleries – a contemporary temporary gallery and community space; a stockroom housing BIFB’s permanent collections, including the Martin Kantor Portrait Prize; a photobook library; a black-and-white darkroom; and one or two apartments for ‘artists-in-residence’. The building will be multi-functional, allowing for educational workshops, studio facilities, and other activities.’
Then in 2020, BIFB hit the jackpot in the form of a $6.7 million regional development-style grant from the state government, with hopes that the new National Centre of Photography would be open in time for the 2023 BIFB. This was by many millions the largest single contribution to photography in Australia by any government.
But by October, 2022, the former Union Bank Building looks years away from being ready to open its dusty-looking doors. BIFB staff are still working in another building. It doesn’t look like it’s had a wash, let along a lick of paint, for many years. Window frames are rotting away, and when you peer inside through the dirty glass – the building is locked up – there looks to be an old photo exhibition from the last Biennale on the walls which no-one has bothered to take down, while the floor is strewn with paper and rubble. Its most distinctive exterior feature is the liberal addition of graffiti tagging.
We have contacted BIFB for an update on renovation plans and have been assured by ‘the BIFB Team’ that the new administrator, Vanessa Gerrans, will ‘respond in due course’. It might be that the scaffolding is going up next month, that the originally contracted architects from 2018 have designs ready to go and a building schedule is about to kick off.
There’s a lot riding on the National Centre of Photography. At the time of the announcement of the $6.7 million grant in 2020, it was estimated to generate $75.7 million in economic benefit across 15 years, and to attract 54,000 visitors over two years.
We look forward to bringing good news about the development of Australia’s new National Centre of Photography soon.
– Keith Shipton