Premier puts $200m Aboriginal cultural centre on ice

Work on a $200 million Aboriginal art and cultures centre at Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen has halted and the state government has appointed an “eminent” panel to review the project after a $50 million cost blowout.

Oct 31, 2022, updated Nov 01, 2022
The latest concept design of Tarrkarri - Centre for First Nations Cultures by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Woods Bagot. Image: Supplied

The latest concept design of Tarrkarri - Centre for First Nations Cultures by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Woods Bagot. Image: Supplied

Premier Peter Malinauskas announced this morning that he had suspended work on “Tarrkarri – Centre for First Nations Cultures” next to the Botanic Garden on North Terrace, describing the current plans as “sub-standard”.

He said he had appointed a panel comprising former Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr and former investment banker Carolyn Hewson to urgently review the $200 million project, with their findings due to be handed down early next year.

It comes after the project’s architects told the government that building the centre within its $200 million budget would require a “significant reduction in scope”, meaning the building would only be of a “local state-level standard”.

The project’s managing contractor advised the government that taxpayers would need to fork out an additional $50 million to build an internationally-significant centre, as was originally proposed by the former Marshall and Morrison governments.

Malinauskas announced the review at First Nations arts conference Purrumpa in Adelaide this morning, telling the audience that it was important to ensure that the project delivered long-term benefits to the state.

“This isn’t necessarily an easy decision, but I firmly believe it is the right decision,” he said.

“Importantly, it can only be done once, which means we have a profound responsibility to do it right.”

After the conference, the Premier refused to speculate on whether the state government would increase funding for the project, saying he was “not going to start commenting on the budget now”.

He insisted the centre would still be built at Lot Fourteen, as builders had already started early remedial works at the site.

“We’re simply conducting this assessment – this review – to make sure if we’re going to spend a significant amount of taxpayers’ money that it is done in such a way that realises the ambition that this centre has always had,” he told reporters.

“I’m not interested in going down a political path where we seek to denounce the former government’s plans, but we do know that there was a curtailment of what was originally proposed because of budgetary considerations.

“We don’t think that on something this important, this significant, we can be second best.

“There are other parts of the nation that are investing in First Nations cultural centres. We don’t want to build another one, we want to build the one.”

The government expects the review will cost under $200,000, with that funding to be covered from within the existing budget allocation.

The latest concept design of Tarrkarri – Centre for First Nations Cultures by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Woods Bagot. (Image: Supplied)

Former Premier Steven Marshall revealed plans to build an “Australian National Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery” at Lot Fourteen ahead of the 2018 state election, at the time saying it would be “the jewel in the crown” of the Liberals’ plan for the former Royal Adelaide Hospital site.

But the Marshall Government later dropped the word “national” from the centre’s title, with the then Premier conceding that there was “further consultation that’s required and approvals needed at the federal level when you’re going to start naming things as national centres and we just thought it wasn’t necessary”.

The project was later renamed “Tarrkarri”, meaning “the future” in Kaurna.

Funding for the project was secured under a “city deal” signed between the Marshall and Morrison governments in 2019, with the Commonwealth chipping in $85 million and state taxpayers funding the rest.

The centre was scheduled to open in early 2025 and was expected to display pieces sourced from the SA Museum, Art Gallery and State Library collections – the majority of which is currently kept in storage – alongside new digital and performing arts displays that would tell the story of Australia’s First Nations peoples.

Malinauskas this morning said he wanted Tarrkarri to set an international standard for promoting and celebrating First Nations culture.

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But when asked whether Traditional Owners in Adelaide had expressed concerns about the plans, Malinauskas said: “The short answer to that question is yes”.

“I think the former government had the right idea about building an arts and cultural centre at Lot Fourteen – that’s a vision that we support,” he said.

“What we want to do is make sure it is absolutely magnificent and that’s going to take a little bit more work and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”

Construction on the centre started in December and was slated to take 30 months.

Original plans showed the building would span 12,500 square metres over three levels, which would make it bigger than the SA Museum and Art Gallery combined and one of Australia’s largest cultural institutions.

It was designed by local architects Woods Bagot in partnership with New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Aboriginal architects contributing to the project.

The former government estimated between 485,000 and 581,000 people would visit the centre in its first year, with the figure estimated to increase to up to 665,000 people by 2040.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher told InDaily that a “large number” of Aboriginal people had spoken to him about the centre and the government’s decision to review it.

He said the review would consider when a realistic timeframe would be to open the centre.

“What I was hearing over and over again since the election was this is a unique opportunity and we’ve got to make sure it properly reflects the history of tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal people in South Australia and on this continent, but that it is done as well as it can be,” he said.

“I think it’s almost been a universal view about the need to get this right and pausing to make sure we’re doing something that’s not just of local interest on a state level but something that is truly international.”

Opposition arts spokesperson John Gardner described the decision to halt the project as a “bitter blow”.

“Peter Malinauskas has once again intentionally delayed a major infrastructure project – we’ve seen this with the North-South Corridor, new Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre builds,” he said.

“This Labor review will take months to complete and further delays just mean the overall cost with skyrocket to a point where Peter Malinauskas walks away from a project that represents reconciliation and the celebration of our unique cultural offerings.”

But Arts Minister Andrea Michaels said the government would do future generations a “disservice” if it settled for a “sub-standard outcome”.

“We want the Centre for First Nations Cultures at Lot Fourteen to hold a landmark position in First Nations arts and culture in Australia and to be a place for events, music, exhibitions, festivals, performances, and creative gatherings of every kind,” she said.

The Northern Territory and Western Australian governments are also planning to build Aboriginal art and cultures centres.

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