‘Decommissioned warehouse’: Frustration at ongoing Tandanya closure

The CEO and general manager of the city’s National Aboriginal Cultural Institute have spoken out about problems facing the “worn out” site which closed “temporarily” nine months ago.

Jan 16, 2024, updated Jan 16, 2024
The National Aboriginal Cultural Institute on Grenfell Street has been closed for nine months due to issues with the heritage-listed building. Photo: David Simmons.

The National Aboriginal Cultural Institute on Grenfell Street has been closed for nine months due to issues with the heritage-listed building. Photo: David Simmons.

The Grenfell St site, which opened in 1989 and was dedicated to displaying Aboriginal art and hosting cultural events, closed suddenly last April with a note on the door advising it was temporary.

Tandanya announces its closure to the public in 2023. Photo: David Simmons/InDaily.

In August, Tandanya’s annual report detailed issues with the “visibly tired” building and “significant workforce issues”. 

The cultural centre’s closure came amid debate about the future of the Tarrkarri Centre for First Nations Cultures, planned by the former Marshall Government for the former Royal Adelaide Hospital site on North Terrace but postponed by the Malinauskas Government.

InDaily reported in December that a decision on the development had been delayed until the new year, as the search continued for philanthropic funding to help pay for a project that a report estimated could cost up to $600 million to make it a world-class venue.

The prominent North Terrace site earmarked for the project sits empty, with curator and cultural historian Margot Osborne arguing last week in InDaily that the government should “switch directions on arts infrastructure to build a new contemporary art gallery” at the site.

SA Aboriginal cultural centre

The Lot 14 site for the proposed Tarrkarri centre. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Tandanya CEO Phillip Saunders said the limbo affecting both the Grenfell Street and Lot 14 sites was frustrating.

“We’ve got a hole in the ground on North Terrace, and a decommissioned warehouse called Tandanya sitting here,” he said.

“Pour whatever it is into Tandanya. You don’t have to build what I believe will be a dinosaur – put some money into the decommissioned warehouse.

“I look forward to meeting with the Premier in the first part of the new year. I have a great working relationship with (Arts Minister Andrea Michaels). She’s across all of these issues. We have a good collaborative working relationship with them.”

The situation has also frustrated newly appointed general manager Julia Tymukas, who told InDaily the ongoing closure had “taken a toll on [her] enthusiasm”.

Tymukas and Saunders said they were hopeful that meetings with Michaels and Premier Peter Malinauskas would help them find a way to reopen.

They said the building hosting Tandanya needed some attention. Though the CEO would not specify what issues the site – once the Grenfell Street Power Station – was dealing with, he said it required repairs.

“The building has been an ongoing problem for a number of years and we are dealing with the legacy of a building which hadn’t had any major repairs done over the last few years, and that’s the issue,” Saunders said.

He said he hoped the structural issues with the heritage-listed site could be addressed by the minister and Premier, both of whom he intends on meeting with early this year.

InDaily asked Michaels about the government’s plans for Tandanya, and was told: “Tandanya is an important entity in the fabric of the arts in South Australia and we continue to work closely with Tandanya to support them with their programs.”

Tandanya closed

Tandanya closed “temporarily” in April 2023. Photo: David Simmons/InDaily.

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Saunders’ comments come after the release of Tandanya’s latest annual report for the 2022/23 financial year.

The report outlined that Tandanya closed out the 12 months with a $134,000 net surplus – an improvement on a $284,000 loss the previous year. It also received close to $1 million in grants revenue in the financial year, up from $857,588.

Saunders said in the report that the cultural institute was “on the cusp of a new beginning following a few difficult years”.

“Behind the scenes this year our team has been actively reviewing the organisation’s operations and governance, resolving legacy issues, continuing to hire safe areas of the building while investigating emerging building safety issues, which resulted in the Tandanya building closing the doors in April 2023,” he said in the report.

“Tandanya opened in 1989 and is the oldest Aboriginal-owned and run cultural centre in Australia and will continue to bring people and communities together to share stories and build connections. In the short term, we want to open our doors and am pleased to be working with the state government to achieve this.

“The Tandanya building has always been a place for creativity and with our current building issues we are focusing on developing and producing arts projects across South Australia in remote and city-based venues in partnership with like-minded organisations and artists promoting First Nations arts and cultures.”

General Manager Tymukas said these organisations include the Adelaide Festival, which Tandanya has partnered with for a performance called Guuranda this year at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

“We’re doing a performance of [Gurranda] on country which we’re supporting over at Yorke Peninsula before it opens for the Adelaide Festival,” she said.

“We’re also working with Tjarutja Dance Collective to develop a dance piece that will be performed at Carclew.”

Though the organisation’s leaders are finding ways around their lack of a safe home, Tymukas said: “When we don’t have a venue, we struggle.”

“We don’t have a venue that’s safe at the moment. We’re struggling to work here, but we know that there’s demand.

“It’s time for a reimagining of what Tandanya is capable of, but not in a decommissioned warehouse. It’s just not possible anymore to keep stringing along and putting events on because it’s worn out basically.

“It’s an incredible building. There seems to be so much support for Tandanya and for its legacy of what it’s done in the past and what could be done for the future because I think a lot of people want to know about Aboriginal culture and they want to be involved with it.”

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