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EXCLUSIVE | The state government will need to invest a “big capital cost” to create an internationally-significant Aboriginal cultural centre at Lot Fourteen, but the end result could be a building that rivals the Sydney Opera House, the team reviewing the suspended project says.

Former Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr and former investment banker Carolyn Hewson told InDaily they believed the Tarrkarri Centre for First Nations Cultures, proposed for a site next to the Botanic Garden on North Terrace, would be “expensive” to build, but worth it in the long-run for the state.

The team, appointed by Premier Peter Malinauskas in October to review the project, said they were not contemplating scaling back the centre. Rather, they would tell the government how much it would cost to make the institution “the best in the world”.

“It’s clear it’s got to be a knock-out of a building and yes, that will be a big capital cost, but as a Sydney person when I look at this picture, I’m seeing a building that ranks with the Opera House or is second only to the Opera House,” Carr said this morning.

“It’s a sculptural piece of architecture, innovative but not gimmicky, not striving for effect. It’s authentic.

“This can be an opportunity to present to Australians the best of the culture of our Indigenous peoples.

“This will be expensive – very likely more expensive than what you’ve contemplated so far.”

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

Wyatt, Carr and Hewson were appointed to review Tarrkarri after the project’s managing contractor advised the government that the cost of the centre had blown out by $50 million.

The contractor told the government that building the centre within the current $200 million budget would require a “significant reduction in scope”, meaning the building would only be of “local state-level standard”.

Malinauskas ordered work on the centre to stop in October, with any further progress pending the results of the review Wyatt, Carr and Hewson are expected to hand down in April at a cost of under $200,000.

Asked if they would recommend that additional taxpayer money be spent on the project, Wyatt said: “If it leads to that, yes we will, because if you’re going to do this right and have the people of South Australia proud of a facility that no other state or territory will have, then that will require investment.”

“The challenge is that you set a proportion of a state’s budget and Commonwealth funding and sometimes they increase because of what you’re trying to encapsulate in telling the story of this nation,” he said.

“When you look at the massacres, you look at the colonisation of this nation through to contemporary Australian Indigenous people, we’ve got an incredibly rich tapestry and trying to capture all of that leads us to a point where we ask the question: What do you leave out?

“You can’t have everything in the building – otherwise we’d take up this whole precinct.”

The Tarrkarri site at Lot Fourteen. Work on the project has halted while a review is undertaken. Photo: Ben Kelly/InDaily

Hewson said the team had not “capped” the project at $200 million, or “put a line through anything because of expense”.

She said the team would do a “full review” of the project’s finances and operating costs.

“What we have actually been able to say is there are elements of revenue generation that we could put back into this project that will actually help the project,” she said.

“There’s a restaurant, café, black box theatre.

“The demand for a black box theatre and the possibility that there can be a cultural facility that’s open from 10am to 10pm at night is very powerful and I think can generate revenue.”

Carr said “huge inflationary pressure” in the construction sector is also impacting the project’s cost.

“Everything – roads, hospitals – is blowing out in every state and in fact around the world,” he said.

“But, we’ve got to get this right and we wouldn’t want to see South Australia with a cultural centre building that is full of compromises that people regret decades later – the story of the Sydney Opera House.

“Let’s get it right now and if it does need a big ingestion of investment in cash upfront then the state has got a building that is not only striking architecturally, but also viable in terms of the work that’s going to take place in it.”

Since October, the team have met nine times, with much of the work focusing on benchmarking other cultural institutions across the world.

It has also visited the SA Museum’s storage facility at Netley, where more than 30,000 spiritually and anthropologically-significant pieces sourced from across Australia’s approximate 250 Aboriginal language groups are stored.

Hewson described the collection as “extraordinary”, saying some of those pieces would be displayed at Tarrkarri alongside digital exhibits.

“We have listened to experts around the world, we’ve also had meetings with the architects of Tarrkarri and understood what they had as their initial model and we’ve just given a lot of input into what we think will take this from the existing Tarrkarri to something that is of global significance,” Hewson said.

“At the same time, we’ve brought the Indigenous reference group along and paid homage to their view and what was important in the original guide for this building.”

The government had hoped that pieces from both the SA Museum and Art Gallery of SA would be displayed at Tarrkarri.

But the review team said the Art Gallery’s involvement was a “work in progress”.

“I suppose you could say they’ve got a history of their contribution to this space and they’re very keen to see it protected,” Carr said.

“We’re keen to enlist their experience and their talent.”

Hewson added: “I think it’s fair to say the Museum with its collection sees a very, very positive step with Tarrkarri and with the Art Gallery it’s a work in progress probably – that’s the best way to put it.”

“But, we’re very optimistic with what this building will do to arts visitation to the state.”

Tarrkarri project ambassador David Rathman, who also heads the project’s Aboriginal reference group, said “in general”, Aboriginal people throughout South Australia were supportive of the project.

“People are generally saying: ‘When is it going to happen?’,” he said.

“Nothing like this has happened in South Australia from an Aboriginal point of view, so I’m fairly confident that the community is going to come behind this.

“This is an institution about Aboriginal narrative and Aboriginal communities are interested in telling that narrative – creating a story around the items of cultural significance to them.”

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.

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

Wyatt said the government shouldn’t put the word “national” in the title of the centre, given the interstate plans.

“We’re not about competing, we’re about being different and unique,” he said.

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.

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.

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