The sculpture Big Boy now lives in Gordon Gardens in Dunolly. (ABC Central Victoria: Beth Gibson)
Modern art has divided the small Central Victorian gold rush town of Dunolly, raising questions about whether past and present can live side-by-side in regional Australia.
The art project, called Dunolly, a Sense of Place, was a collaboration between local artists and Deborah Halpern, a well-known Australian artist famous for her large, colourful mosaic sculptures.
Anna Ashton, one of the local artists involved in the project, helped secure a grant worth almost $30,000 from Creative Victoria.
Australian artist Deborah Halpern is well known for her large colourful mosaic sculptures. (Supplied: Deborah Halpern brand)
“We thought if we could engage somebody like Deborah she could teach us skills, upskill the community and give them a sense of of achievement,” Ms Ashton said.
Working with the local primary school and kindergarten, Ms Halpern used the children’s drawings to created four large mosaic sculptures.
On the back of each sculpture are almost 400 tiles hand-painted by members of the community, representing groups including the local CFA and SES, the golf club and the singing group.
All four sculptures were initially going to be installed in the Gordon Gardens, but last year the Central Goldfields Shire Council decided to instead place two in Broadway, the main street of Dunolly.
This decision to put the sculptures alongside heritage-listed goldrush buildings created significant angst in the community.
Anna Ashton (L) and Deborah Halpern working on one of the mosaic sculptures designed by local school children. (Supplied: Philip Ashton)
Ruining historic streetscapes
Dunolly local Brian Phillips helped organise a community protest and a social media page, titled “Dunolly mosaics — have your say”.
“Don’t change the character of our street,” Mr Phillips said.
“People come here to see the historic buildings. They love it, we love it, I moved here because of it.”
The council, which went into administration in 2017, has been making a concerted efforts to reinvent Dunolly to make it more appealing to visitors.
A group a Dunolly locals say the mosaics will ruin the historic streetscape of the town. (ABC Central Victoria: Beth Gibson)
Chief administrator Noel Harvey believes the sculptures will inject life into the small town.
“You can look anywhere around the country and around Europe, where lots of modern additions to historic streets have added value,” Mr Harvey said.
But some locals like John Tully, who has lived in Dunolly for 40 years, say they don’t want change.
“This concept that the shire keeps saying Dunolly needs to reinvent itself, no, Dunolly is actually doing too bad,” Mr Tully said.
“Other places in the shire, Maryborough is getting a little bit depressed at the moment, but Dunolly doesn’t do too badly.”
Wayne McKail from the Central Goldfields ratepayers association said he was disappointed with how the council had handled the issue.
“The council is basically giving people no ownership over the town they love,” Mr McKail said.
Dunolly local Wendy Harland-White says she moved out of Daylesford because it was losing touch with its history. (ABC Central Victoria: Beth Gibson)
‘It’s becoming yuppie-fied’
Wendy Harland-White says she moved to Dunolly from Daylesford in 2004 because of gentrification.
“People move to town because they love it, and then they try and change it to where they’ve come from,” Ms Harland-White said.
“Daylesford did have a community at one stage, and then they started with all the art people and everyone coming in and pushing the people that have grown up there out.
“My children grew up in Daylesford and their friends cannot buy a house in Daylesford because the prices have gone up because of all this arty stuff.”
One of the sculptures was going to go in front of the Cobb & Co Coach Office, which was built in 1857 during the early years of the gold rush. (ABC Central Victoria: Beth Gibson)
Ms Ashton said she found the antagonism against the sculptures “bewildering and somewhat upsetting”.
“It’s been interesting just seeing how passionate some of the people are about the possibility of change, about integrating the old and new,” she said.
Ms Ashton said members of the community were nostalgic about the town’s gold history.
“If it had have been a rusty sculpture of mining history, it might’ve been different,” she said.
“But you know, gold was central to Dunolly, but it hasn’t necessarily created wealth for the community.
“Most of the gold gets taken away.”
Anna Ashton said: “If it had have been a rusty sculpture of mining history, it might’ve been different.” (ABC Central Victoria: Beth Gibson)
Compromise still possible
Mr Harvey said it was common for public art to create debate in small communities.
“I think that’s a good thing, provided the debate is conducted in a civil and respectful way,” Mr Harvey said.
Mr Harvey disagreed with accusations the council didn’t consult widely enough with the community.
The kangaroo sculpture remains in storage after some community members expressed concern about it being put in the main street of Dunolly. (Supplied: Dunolly sense of place project)
“Consultation doesn’t mean that you have agreement and consensus at the end of the process,” he said.
“No matter where they end up, there is going to be somebody who is not happy.”
Despite already installing concrete bases for both the sculptures planned for the main street, council has now set up a public submission portal so community members can have their say about their final placement.
Mr Phillips insists the majority of protesters would be happy if all four sculptures go into the garden.
“We do not have an issue with the art itself — we think the art, the concept, the people who have worked on it is an absolutely fantastic plan,” Mr Phillips said.
“They’re not necessarily my cup of tea, but I think they’re really good.”