NGV lightboxes: Public art or advertising on heritage-listed land?

By Katie Johnson

A proposed plan to allow The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to build 29 lightboxes of art on heritage-listed land on St Kilda Rd has caused a stir in the local community.

The illuminated lightboxes featuring images of birds will be part of the NGV’s Triennial exhibition set to open in December and will be in place for 25 years if approved.

Long-term Melbourne resident Dr Stan Capp said the proposal had not received the scrutiny required to protect one of Melbourne’s greatest heritage sites.

“I think St Kilda Rd is the greatest boulevard we have in Melbourne and it ought to be protected at all costs,” Dr Capp said.

“To look at allocating this area of land for the exclusive use of NGV notwithstanding that this for a piece of artwork and not just for advertising or promotion, my sense is that it’s still a poor precedent to set and it would be difficult to reject other applications further down St Kilda Rd as they arise.”

Dr Capp also said the proposal was not appropriate as the council had not been “transparent” with the community about the decision.

“I would advocate it be called back to the council for consideration by the Future Melbourne Committee,” he said.

The proposal lodged in early August with Heritage Victoria outlines a plan for the lightboxes to feature images of birds such as ibises, herons and pigeons to be drawn up by London-based artist Julian Opie.

Most of the lightboxes would be close to ground level and sit on the median strip opposite the NGV, however five would be on four-metre poles and measure up to 1.2 metres by 80 centimetres.

The proposal also outlines plans for more floodlighting of the plane trees to enhance how the area looks at night.

Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna also said that it was “disappointing” the council hadn’t consulted residents about the project.

“We’ve always had a say on proposals that have an impact on our community, but council didn’t even inform us despite how engaged we are,” Mr Penna said.

“This is a space for residents of Southbank who are passionate about their arts precinct. I would be disappointed if after the application has been assessed by Heritage Victoria, if it doesn’t go through council and the Future Melbourne Committee for community consultation.”

Friends of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens member Margaret O’Brien said it was “extraordinary” that a heritage site was being appropriated by one institution.

“At the very least it requires a rigorous process including a referral by the NGV and the City to the federal minister under the EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] Act because of the significant impact to the site,” Ms O’Brien said.

“As custodians of our national heritage treasures, they have so much space inside. So why are they going into the public space?”

Ms O’Brien also said that aside from the hazardous distraction it posed to traffic on St Kilda Rd, it also set a dangerous precedent for private institutions wanting to build on heritage land.

“Art can be very controversial, so who’s to say what the subjects of this lease are? Once they are approved they could choose to display whatever they like, including advertising,” Ms O’Brien said.

“Other private companies who want to take over the public space will also take this as a green light, and from a national heritage perspective I think this is irresponsible.”

Councillor Rohan Leppert said that while he could not comment on the status of the application as it was under assessment, the lightboxes would be installed solely for the purpose of public art.

“The application before Heritage Victoria refers to a work of public art and is not for signage or any promotional material associated with the National Gallery of Victoria,” Cr Leppert said.

“The artwork is a commission from the NGV and City of Melbourne for the 2020 NGV Triennial. More details on the artwork will be announced later this year.”

Under the agreement outlined in the proposal, the city would manage the lightboxes while the NGV would provide the art.

The heritage impact statement said that aside from the risk of damage to the roots of 11 plane trees along St Kilda Rd, the instillation would have an “extremely limited” impact on the whole of the road.

“[The installations] are considered to be an appropriate balance of artistic expression and respect for the heritage place that will not compromise the use and recognition of St Kilda Rd as a major public boulevard,” the statement read.

The NGV would not comment on the potential heritage impact, however a spokesperson said that the artwork would be displayed as a “potential project in development for NGV Triennial”.

A Heritage Victoria spokesperson said the application was still under assessment and it was considering the potential impact to the “cultural heritage significance” of St Kilda Rd, as well as the public submissions received last month •

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