The uncertain future of Sturt Gallery and Studios

The review committee tasked with finding a way to surmount Sturt Gallery and Studios’ operational and financial challenges is expressing cautious optimism that Australia’s pioneering design centre and school for contemporary craft has a future.

In February, the craft community was shocked when news broke via a letter from the head of Frensham Schools, Geoff Marsh, that Sturt, located in Mittagong on Gundungurra country in the New South Wales southern highlands, would close its doors while it was placed under review. As part of the legacy of its founder, Winifred West, the privately run schools have funded Sturt’s school of excellence in art, design and fabrication since 1941—without any government funding.

Women Woodworkers at Sturt 1940s

One of the five review committee members, Brian Parkes, the chief executive and artistic director of Adelaide’s Jam Factory, says the panel is on track to deliver its interim report to the Winifred West Schools’ Board of Governors at the end of June. “There’s quite a bit to do, but there are reasonably clear terms of reference in relation to putting forward some models that will see some kind of positive future for Sturt,” says Parkes. “There’s certainly some interesting challenges that we’re looking at, but we’re confident we’ll have a couple of good, viable options for them to consider.”

After the interim report is delivered, Parkes says the review committee will get a sense of the board’s preferred model and budget “by August or September”, then deliver a refined set of recommendations for a new model of operation for Sturt, supported by a clear and costed implementation plan.

Parkes notes there is “an enormous amount of goodwill and passion and sentiment around the whole thing”, while “there has certainly been some strong opinion about how the process has come about and some criticism, certainly, levelled at the school for the way it has communicated some of that”.

Sturt School for Wood graduate and Wood Review Maker of the Year 2023 Jess Humpston

Parkes said it would not be appropriate for him to comment on the exact nature of Sturt’s challenges. “Financially, it has performed reasonably well, but it’s never quite wiped its face. There have been limitations on what it can and can’t do, which have exacerbated that.”

Sturt, in many ways, is “the cradle from which the craft movement in Australia was created, so historically, it’s of deep importance. Many of the early protagonists were, effectively, the parents of the crafts movement in the country,” he says. “It’s played a key role. A lot of extraordinarily successful people have gone through [Sturt], often at nascent stages in their careers, and they’ve gone on to do extraordinary things. The Sturt School for Wood, for instance, is the only place left in Australia where you can still study fine furniture. That’s critically important.”

Parkes does note that Sturt “hasn’t been in its heyday in recent years, it must be said, and there have been over the last 20 years or so increasing challenges around how it does what it does.”

What would be the impact if Sturt was forced to close entirely? “It would mean the loss of an extraordinary heritage asset in the cultural sector,” he says. “[Sturt] pre-dates so much of the cultural infrastructure that we take for granted across the country. All the not-for-profit organisations like the one that I work for here in Adelaide, the Jam Factory, were set up from the late 1960s through the 70s, when there was a platform of public funding and so on. In 1941, none of that existed. So, this was a visionary thing, and in some ways the challenges that it faces now make it quite different to all those other organisations because it was so far ahead of its time.

Jann Kesby firing the anagama, Woodfire Weekend 2022. Photo by Steven Foster.

“The facilities themselves are pretty extraordinary: the anagama kiln and some of those facilities in the ceramics workshop, they’re important bits of facility in our sector, and the opportunity to do wood firing at that scale is pretty rare in this country.”

Parkes would not elaborate on which model the review committee was leaning towards. “Whether it’s a model that proposes something separate from the existing structures, or something integrated within, we’ll be looking certainly at least at those two options, and variations on those,” he says. “We as a group haven’t landed [on an option], but certainly there are those two very clear potential pathways. There are pros and cons for both. We’re cognisant of needing to come up with something that will ensure the future of Sturt, but also will be palatable to the board that ultimately makes the decision.”

The review committee is chaired by Jennifer Bott and consists of three other members—Liz Williamson, Sally Gordon and Peter Roach—who are operating with “unity”, says Parkes. “It’s been a pleasurable and consensus kind of process; I’ve enjoyed the conversations that we’ve had.”

Feature Words by Steve Dow