The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

View from North (Laman Street Elevation) (2011) Image produced by Haycraft Duloy PTY Limited

Auditing the collection, a management perspective.

My aim is to give an overview of the Newcastle Art Gallery’s collection audit that was piloted from March 2010. I will give you the nuts and bolts of what we did and how we did it. But I will also outline why we did it from a wider organisational, management and strategic perspective.

My aim is to give an overview of the Newcastle Art Gallery’s collection audit that was piloted from March 2010. I will give you the nuts and bolts of what we did and how we did it. But I will also outline why we did it from a wider organisational, management and strategic perspective.

Before I commence, I would like to make something clear. I am not a Registrar, I am an Assistant Director – so bear with me. Okay, we can move on.

I would like to share with you the practicalities of how a long standing regional gallery like Newcastle, with limited resources but with a large and significant collection, conceived and undertook an audit of that collection. Through focused strategic planning, as well as a bit of serendipity, good timing and of course luck, we have utilised the collection as a powerful tool for change that will have tremendous outcomes both internally and externally. The aim is to meet some ambitious goals we have set ourselves as an organisation.

Commenced on the 10th March 2010, the audit was trialed as a three-month pilot project, which continues to this day. It was developed to address immediate and urgent collection management issues. Also in consideration was the fact that in the 55-year history of the Gallery, there had never been a complete and detailed stock take of the collection.

Of course in the beginning we had no budget, no dedicated staff who could do it, limited expertise in such a project and obviously we had to maintain the Gallery’s daily and forward program at the same time. It was a daunting proposition but an exciting one, and above all else it was absolutely necessary. As we contemplated the project and scoped the process and its implications we started to consider the audit could be more of an opportunity than a liability. We came to realise that it could be a catalyst project with an impact on the entire organisation. Interestingly once we committed to it, and the pilot was underway, it quickly and organically grew in scope and momentum to become an aspect of our daily operations.


At this point it is useful to gain some background about the Gallery that may contextualise why we would conceive of the audit project in such a strategic way.

Formed in 1957 largely through the bequest of an ophthalmologist, Dr Roland Pope, the Gallery was originally on the second floor of the War Memorial Cultural Centre, which also housed the newly formed Library (also a condition of Pope’s bequest). Moving next door to its current location in 1977 and opened by Her Majesty the Queen, it was heralded as the first modern purpose built regional art gallery in Australia.

Newcastle Art Gallery is a Service Unit of The City of Newcastle Council. We present over twenty exhibitions a year, with ninety percent of these directly developed from the collection. They are accompanied by up to one hundred and fifty programs and events. We have ten full-time and one part-time staff, supported by fifteen casuals, who work across a wide range of Gallery operations. Even though we are a part of the Council we not only serve the ratepayers of Newcastle but the Hunter Region as well.

The Art Gallery Society membership sits at eleven hundred and growing, on average thirty new members per month. The Committee is very active, programming and presenting up to fifty events per year, with the aim of promoting the Gallery and raising money for the collection. The Art Gallery Foundation is also strong and active with one hundred and ten members, with significant funds invested and managed on behalf of the Gallery. Like the Society, the sole aim of the Foundation is promoting the Gallery and raising money for the development of the collection.

We are fortunate to have working with us fifteen Volunteer Guides with a wealth of experience and an average of ten years’ service each; the guides present approximately seven hundred and fifty guided tours each year for adults, community groups, benefactors, sponsors, families and schools, amongst many others.

Our attendances are strong and consistent. On average seventy thousand people visit the Gallery annually. With no facilities other than exhibition spaces this figure is the actual people who view the works of art on display. We have a very active lending program, with over 600,000 people viewing works from the Newcastle collection last year while on loan to other regional, state and national institutions around the country. This brings recognition to the Gallery and the collection but also to the City and the Hunter Region as well. We are very conscious of this.


Over eighty percent of the 6,000 objects that make up the collection have been donated, with major contributions from some key benefactors. Of course there is Dr Roland Pope but there is also Anne von Bertouch, William Bowmore OBE AO, Les Renfrew, Ann Lewis AO and Margaret Olley AC. This spirit continues to this day with significant gifting annually, either directly or through the Cultural Gifts Program – an indication of the regard for and support of the Gallery and its collection by the community and beyond. Along with a very active acquisitions program, the collection develops on average by one hundred and fifty works per year. It is a dynamic, constantly evolving collection. We are deliberately, a very active collecting institution.


The collection is diverse and includes significant indigenous works of art, including barks, from the 1960s through to contemporary practice, a comprehensive overview of Australian art from colonial times to the present day, a large collection of works on paper, a small but interesting range of Australian and international sculpture including four Rodins, as well as a comprehensive collection of Australian ceramics and the largest collection of twentieth century Japanese ceramics in the Southern Hemisphere.

The collection is The City of Newcastle’s single most valuable asset both financially and culturally and is the only asset that appreciates, not depreciates, which seems to be a unique proposition for a Council to comprehend. This can also bring challenges.

The point is that right from its foundation the Gallery has been driven by the collection. The collection is our core, not just operationally but philosophically. It is the embodiment of our values as an institution and what feeds our vision for it. The collection is our greatest asset and resource. We consciously put it front and centre. It is also our greatest responsibility and challenge. Its development, management, documentation, conservation, storage, research, accessibility and display charges everything we do and is by and large why others want to get involved with us.

We believe it is crucial to the Gallery’s ongoing reputation, credibility and relevance not just in the Newcastle community and Hunter Region but also beyond. It enables and influences our relationship stakeholders such as members, benefactors, funders, sponsors, benefactors and you, our colleagues.

We have noticed though, that in recent years a focus on developing and maintaining a collection seems to have fallen out of favour – at least with government funding bodies anyway. This is a mistake. Doing so, especially outside the capital cities, is an important point of difference, and a commitment that speaks to the character of the community in which it is situated. A collection articulates what a community values and what it wants to presents to others now and into the future. It is indicative of a long-term view of and investment in the visual arts that the 3-month blockbuster falls well short of.

Having stated all of that, if a collection is not consistently and rigorously managed it is unruly to work with. This became apparent at Newcastle. While the collection was functioning adequately, it was not doing so efficiently, to its capacity and to the community’s or the Gallery’s best advantage. Amongst several key management issues we faced with the collection, the most visible, literally, was storage, or lack thereof, as it had more than reached its capacity.

The way forward

How did we proceed? We formed a small working party, generated an inventory of all the issues that were apparent, assessed and prioritised them, brainstormed possible options. It became obvious the issues were many and interconnected, affecting not just the management of the collection but wider operations. We sought advice from colleagues as the way forward was not clear.

Things changed following a fortuitous conversation about our issues with Charlotte Davy, Senior Registrar at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a former colleague of mine. Charlotte generously offered some very sound, logical advice, and following a few more conversations we engaged Charlotte to consult with us. In December 2009 Charlotte spent two days in Newcastle wading through the storage areas, understanding the collection, interviewing staff, observing processes and subsequently producing a report outlining the challenges, along with short, medium and long term recommendations to address them.

This report became our road map. It was the best thing we could have done and the resulting ten-page document, now well worn with lots of notes and highlighter pen throughout, is still informing us two years later. It wasn’t that we were following it word for word, we haven’t done everything yet and some things we won’t do – but it gave us key objectives, milestones and an overarching strategy that has been invaluable. Ultimately though, the core recommendation was to get back to basics and to do a full collection stock take, so that is what we did.

We took the report seriously and so too did the Council. We had already raised all these issues with them, thus far to no avail, but seeing them in a report by an ‘expert consultant’ had a powerful impact on Senior Council Staff. We quickly realised it could be harnessed and we moved quickly to do so. It wasn’t long that a small temporary budget was established for a pilot audit of the collection that got underway two months later.

The process

Preparation for the audit included:

  • Establishing appropriate audit staff and ensuring the process could be integrated into daily operations
  • Training in KeEmu basics including editing and updating data
  • Training in condition reporting and documentation
  • Movement of all hardcopy collection files to secure curatorial offices
  • Establishing a new location identification system and future location movement protocols with staff and in KeEmu
  • Review of the accession process and all associated documentation
  • Establishing a workflow protocol and timeframe for entries into KeEmu
  • Review of condition reporting process and documentation
  • Auditing strategy – where to start, mediums/issues, access to storage spaces, efficiencies and maximising outcomes for the pilot
  • Establishing time frames and budgets for the pilot and for the entire collection
  • Building a staff commitment to the audit and the wider process of change it would initiate

The audit process included:

  • The physical sighting of individual works of art
  • Identification and allocation of locations
  • Detailed, documentation and condition reporting, including publication-quality photography of works
  • Assessment of condition and identification of conservation needs and priority
  • Entering all documentation into KeEmu
  • Continual assessment of storeroom conditions including environmental (temperature/ RH), storage infrastructure and positioning of works
  • Rationalisation and maximising storage space for increased efficiencies in access and handling

The pilot budget allocated by Council was only enough for one casual staff member for three days per week for three months – or thirty-six days in total. The brief was to ‘road test” the audit process and documentation and to scope the resources a complete collection audit would require in terms of staff, budget, time and quality of outcome. The pilot commenced in March 2010.

Before commencing we thought one casual staff member supported by permanent staff would be sufficient. It quickly became obvious two casual staff would be the minimum due to the sheer volume and physical nature of the work, to maintain the consistency and integrity of the data being collected and for risk management purposes. However, a few weeks in we drafted a third casual in to focus exclusively on inputting the data in KeEmu. We decided to take a risk and absorb this cost within its annual operations budget. One of the team was established as a team leader.

The casual staff members chosen had shown an aptitude for the project through previous installation and technical work with the collection, and were known for their attention to detail and desire to work with the collection. They were highly motivated and excited about the project.


We decided the focus of the pilot would be the one hundred and forty paintings in Storeroom 2. This location, the so-called ‘Icons Storeroom’ includes the most important works from the collection and almost half of the collection’s value is held in this store. Compared to the other storerooms, less works were stored there and it was relatively easy to access.

Ceramics were also audited. This was to trial the process for 3D objects – ceramics are also a substantial and unique aspect of the Gallery’s collection. The ceramic collection store is small and well beyond capacity with all storage units and most of the floor utilised. It was a great test.


By completion in June 2010, the team had audited two hundred and seventy works of art, split almost evenly between the painting (2D) and ceramic (3D) collection. A range of important steps forward had also occurred as a result.

Condition and conservation of works of art

The process incorporated a thorough condition report of each work of art audited, including its support and frame, which was then entered into KeEmu as a baseline.

A careful investigation of the works for possible damage, faults or degradation was mandatory as part of the process. If any issues were identified and considered a priority, they were noted on the report, based on an agreed scale of low, medium or high, and drawn to my attention for further action. The table above is a breakdown of the conservation needs of the works examined.

As a result a Conservation Register was reinstated. To this point the conservation of the collection had been more reactive rather than proactive and by and large delivered in an ad hoc fashion. This has now changed.

Collection information, data and management

The recording of measurements for all works, differentiating between the works themselves, the support and the frame, were important improvements to the collection management.

The audit revealed significant differences in recorded dimensions, to actual dimensions, most likely due to different understandings by staff during the last fifty-five years. A written explanation of the method used was therefore included in the audit process file to clarify this system. The additional accurate recording of the support and/or frame size was also done.

Location identification and confirmation

The correct identification, allocation and recording of the location of works was also essential and mandatory; it was one of the highest priorities of the pilot. Accurate locations of works had lapsed in the last few years relying on individual staff knowledge rather than data in KeEmu. A process of naming, documenting and labelling every possible location for works of art within the building and externally was also successfully implemented.

Storage space maintenance and rationalisation

The audit also included the maintenance of storage racks and other storage units as well as a comprehensive re-organising of the works on the shelves and racks to maximise the limited space available.


In all the two hundred and seventy works of art audited in the pilot over thirty-six days amounted to only 5.4% of the collection.

While the process had revealed many more issues that need addressing it had also resolved many others. It re-established fundamental collection management standards and practices and started the process to re-instate the integrity of collection data and our confidence in it.

The pilot has also brought to the attention of all staff, and the most importantly the Council, the ongoing conservation, storage, staffing and budget the collection requires and has highlighted the negative impact inconsistent resourcing in this area can bring. It has been, and continues to be, an invaluable opportunity to view, understand and work with the collection and for the staff involved directly, an extremely beneficial professional development opportunity.

Overall the pilot audit has brought a daily focus on, connection to and momentum back to the collection and the Gallery as a whole. The pilot has become a tangible symbol of the Gallery management’s commitment to improvement and progress as an organisation for the staff.

The pilot cost $14,000, primarily for the two staff. A report was written for Council that recommended the project continue; auditing the entire collection was to be the Gallery’s highest priority.

It is important to note here that a Council is hugely risk averse. This was the key point at which we could strategically leverage for the budget and support we needed – and we did. We stopped using words like ‘works of art’ and started using ‘asset’, or replaced ‘collection management’ with ‘risk management’ – doors opened and so too did budgets.

The business case for the continuation of the collection audit, as a critical asset risk management mitigation tool, was framed thus:

  • The collection is the community and Council’s most valuable asset
  • To potentially save or rationalise the limited storage space available
  • To potentially mitigate Workplace, Health and Safety, insurance and duty of care issues
  • To maintain standards of practice, especially in the absence of a fulltime curatorial position
  • To maintain positive public and industry perception and confidence
  • To maintain the Gallery’s active lending program
  • In preparation for the building redevelopment, while not confirmed at this time, would require the movement of the collection and its establishment in new storage spaces on site.

We estimated, based on the quantity of works audited during the pilot time-frame, that it would take up to two years to complete the entire collection. You can do the sums on the potential cost. This is obviously a large and costly task but you have to start somewhere.

It was resolved with Council to progress, but in 36 discrete projects, with a review of progress at its conclusion. I secretly hoped it would just keep rolling on – and it did. In the lead up to the new financial year we made a ‘Hail Mary’ budget bid and got it; it seems our message had got through.

We always anticipated that as the process became more efficient and the staff more experienced and/or the curatorial staffing of the Gallery was addressed, the estimated time frame for the audit would be reduced, and this is what has happened.

Continuing the momentum

Serendipity and luck has also come to our aid. Roughly at the same time as the pilot audit was gaining momentum; all Councils in New South Wales were required by the State Government to develop Strategic Asset Management Plans (SAMP). While the Gallery building had always been considered in asset maintenance planning, the collection had not. The SAMP we developed put it front and centre, in parallel with the building, along with two key recommendations – a comprehensive audit of the collection and the instatement of a fulltime curatorial position. Something the Gallery had lacked for seven years.

We had secured an ongoing budget for the two casual staff to continue the audit but there was still, what we considered to be the lynch-pin issue to resolve – the curator. This obviously was a major contributing factor in the need for an audit in the first place, and now through the SAMP it was positioned with Council as an essential risk mitigation and asset maintenance strategy. In light of the budget now required for the audit, it not only made good business sense but also good financial sense to them as well.

After budget bids four years running, a discussion paper and a report arguing for the position, we finally had it approved this financial year – 2011/12. I am pleased to say our new fulltime Curator Sarah Johnson started at the Gallery on Monday 30 January 2012. This has been a huge morale boost for the staff as well as having once again a permanent staff member dedicated to the collection.

The audit had not only armed us with the data – the challenges and the benefits – but it was creating a momentum for us in Council that was also really being felt within the Gallery amongst the staff as well. The Director and I could feel it but we also knew we had to take our opportunity further and initiate comprehensive organisational change.

We quickly moved to address and refresh our Acquisitions Policy, which had not been reviewed since, you guessed it 2005 – the same year the Curator’s position ceased.

Out of date and very limited in detail it now includes the formation of an Acquisitions Advisory Committee and a detailed de-accession process. This is extremely important with the storage issues we face and with Councillors claiming publicly that to enhance facilities the Gallery should sell off some of its high value paintings. De-accessioning has been very carefully thought through and the process clearly articulated. Rather than being a licence to dispose, for us it is more a safeguard with which to protect the collection.

It was clear that with this progress we had to address one last major issue we faced as an organisation to ensure that the change we really required and desired would be meaningful and lasting. This was a staff structure that would have the capacity to support the way forward. We simultaneously proposed a long overdue, long thought through organisational restructure. Our structure at that time was more the result of history and happenstance than sound planning.

With the profile of the Gallery high within Council, a greater understanding of the collection and its value, and a perception that we ‘arty types’ were being proactive proposing financially responsible solutions not problems – we conceived a structure predicated on increasing our capacity to operate at the highest of standards, with a significant collection and soon to be redeveloped facilities. We needed the staff

structure and expertise to carry it through. This restructure process commenced in June 2011 and is just coming to its conclusion now. It has been a challenging time for all staff but a necessary decision that has been in the Gallery’s long term interests.

The key to the new structure was the shift from no curator on staff to developing a curatorial team – a curator supported by one fulltime and one part time assistant curator. In addition we have formed other departments – Exhibitions (two staff) and Audience Development (three staff), and we will be recruiting in the coming months.

The only outstanding long-term objective was the redevelopment and expansion of the Gallery building itself. It has always been predicated on the importance of the collection, the lack of access due to the limited storage and display, and the potential cultural and economic impact for the City and the Region.

We believe that the audit, the data it generated and the momentum, was a game changer for this. Not by itself, but it proved invaluable to developing the business case and strategic plan to submit with the grant application that ultimately secured $7M from the Federal Governments Regional Development Fund in September 2011. Again we learnt from the audit the value of talking more about assets, capacity and economics rather than ‘art for art’s sake’. Perhaps we also had a confidence through all the progress we had made, that we were on the right track and it came through in the application.

Either way, securing the funding has been the tipping point that has initiated the project, with detailed design this year (2012), and construction beginning early next year (2013), with completion due mid 2014. We will double our size to just over 5,500 m2 and include not just expanded storage space and collection galleries but a state of the art dock and back of house, a café, theatre, education centre, gallery shop and two additional retail spaces with which to generate income.


It important to acknowledge the Gallery’s staff has been through a lot of change and I won’t pretend it hasn’t been bumpy. Some decided not to continue on the path ahead but overwhelmingly those who have, can see its value and feel the benefits.

The staff culture, from permanent, to casual, to volunteer, the guides, the Society and Foundation Committees, have shifted from a sense of being bogged down, of grinding through to a really proactive, positive focus – a real can-do attitude. They have confidence in themselves, the Gallery and fortunately, myself and the Director.

So what’s next?

There are a few things on the list

  • Continue to manage change,
  • Keep the momentum going,
  • Manage expectations,
  • Continue to manage change,
  • Get the new teams working as a team,
  • Building a building,
  • Digitise the collection, and
  • Continue the audit.

The pilot collection audit started out of necessity and a sense of urgency. Ultimately though it has been a catalyst for organisational change, energised the Gallery and the staff and generated a momentum that we have been able to capitalise on.

We know we have been lucky and we know it is all about timing. We know that it is also about planning, ambition, having a vision for the future and being ready to act when the opportunity arises. This is an important moment in time for this Gallery, one where it all seems to be coming together and we are determined to make the most of it.

We strongly believe there is power in a collection – and if you are good to it, it will be good to you.

By Tristan Sharp, Assistant Director, Newcastle Art Gallery

Tristan Sharp