HOTA, Queensland’s home of the arts on the gold coast is proving both a resilient not-for-profit and a welcome antidote to troubled times.

    When the new $60.5m Home of the Arts (HOTA) Gallery opened on the Gold Coast in May, it became Australia’s largest regional art gallery — with a fresh twist. From its bold, breezy exterior to the lurid outdoor sculpture guarding the entrance, the gallery exemplifies the Gold Coast’s colourful, irreverent approach to life, which tourism authority Destination Gold Coast aims to capture in its “Come Back and Play” branding campaign.

    HOTA’s founding chair was performer Robyn Archer AO who, during her three years in the role, nurtured the evolution of a respected cultural precinct in an area better known for its sun, sand and surf. In June 2019, incoming chair Emeritus Professor Ned Pankhurst, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost Gold Coast at Queensland’s Griffith University, joined CEO Criena Gehrke, who has an extensive arts and cultural background, to usher HOTA through the next stages of its development. Neither were quite sure how it would go.

    “Criena and I were both hopefully expectant, but a bit wary of each other, because we come from very different professional backgrounds,” says Pankhurst. “We’ve been consistently amazed by how often we see exactly the same destination, but we sometimes come to it by different routes.”

    Gehrke quips that she considers herself and Pankhurst as the “Renaissance couple” given the resulting blend of science and art. “The astute kind of direct thinking that Ned brings to the role counterbalances my need to just really keep the humans happy all the time — so it really is a good combination,” she says. “He was very curious and thoughtful, but made it clear his expectation was that we were going to do a magnificent job — meaning as chair, he would set the bar very high, but that I’d be supported all the way.”

    Gehrke has quite deliberately cultivated a “democratic” spirit at HOTA which, in addition to the gallery, operates two theatres, two cinemas, an outdoor stage and several function rooms. She says the lack of stuffiness means people can enjoy experiences on their own terms. “If you want to come in your wet boardies straight from the lake, we’re really, really happy for you to do that. If you want to go to The Exhibitionist Bar in your black-tie attire, then bring it on.”

    If you want to come in your wet boardies straight from the lake, we’re really, really happy for you to do that. If you want to go to the exhibitionist bar in your black-tie attire, then bring it on.

    Criena Gehrke

    Pandemic pressures

    However, like other museums and galleries around the country, HOTA has had a tough 18 months. For three months from the start of the pandemic in March 2020, many services and events were reduced, suspended or closed.

    Being a controlled entity of the City of Gold Coast meant none of HOTA’s workforce were eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy, which raised immediate questions about long-term financial sustainability. “It became very evident that in order to shore up the future of HOTA, we were going to have to do a significant stand down of the workforce,” says Gehrke.

    Around 90 per cent of employees were stood down or had their hours significantly reduced, but all employees had been re-engaged by the end of 2020. Since January 2021, HOTA has appointed more than 50 employees and 150 volunteers in support of the new gallery opening. Fortunately, operating under a subsidy from City of Gold Coast meant the organisation could bear losses for longer and “be a lot more flexible in how we apply our budget to different activities at different times”, says Pankhurst.

    The nature of the precinct, with a mix of indoor and outdoor venues across 17ha of parkland, also helped to keep HOTA’s heart beating, as indoor events were transferred to open-air spaces. This creative approach to restrictions, following Gehrke’s directive to the executive team to “find different ways of doing things” included “crop circle” ground markings being used to delineate boundaries between different groups.

    Although HOTA was the first cultural venue and precinct in Australia to reopen and stage live events after the 2020 lockdown, it continues to experience reduced income from sponsorship, education, engagement activities and retail.

    Queensland’s most recent lockdown began on 31 July this year, the same day the new gallery’s second major exhibition — Lyrical Landscapes, showcasing the work of artist William Robinson — was due to open. Such disruptions put an inevitable dent in employees’ optimism and energy, but have an even more devastating impact on artists and creatives. “They’re really doing it tough,” says Gehrke. “It’s beginning to feel like an increasing sense of resignation, but also this anxiety and a creeping depression.”

    Such challenging circumstances would test any working relationship, but “quite early we realised it was okay for both of us to change our minds,” says Pankhurst. “We often leave hanging discussions where we’ll talk about something and agree that we’re not going to reach a position until the following day because we need to go away and think about things. I can’t think of many occasions where the opportunity for a bit of reflection hasn’t actually made the decision or position clearer.”

    Gallery governance

    Another challenge for the boards of arts organisations like HOTA is to ensure that artistic vision and programming is balanced with sound general and financial management and oversight. All board members are informed and have their own opinions on the arts, but Pankhurst says they understand their role is to govern the business, rather than make artistic decisions.

    Regional galleries could be tempted to copy a successful formula operating elsewhere, but carving out a unique identity was critical. “We’re getting more and more requests for consultancy on other projects,” says Gehrke. “People say, ‘We want to be HOTA, we want to be [Hobart gallery] MONA’, and my response is, ‘No, no, no’. The ambition of HOTA is absolutely appropriate for our city of 600,000 people, which is going to grow to a million by 2034, welcomes a million visitors each year and has an economy heavily based in tourism. I get concerned sometimes for other cities that haven’t really delved into what is their DNA, what is appropriate for their community and their visitors, and what is sustainable for them.”

    HOTA’s ongoing mission is to spark colour, imagination and creativity. “We’ve described ourselves as a joy factory,” says Pankhurst. “That’s what we’re here for all the time, but it’s particularly important at the moment, when for a range of reasons, there’s not as much joy in people’s lives as there has been in the past.”

    With international events such as the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2032 Olympics on the horizon as potential tourist goldmines, HOTA’s ambitions may well be rewarded.

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