Arts / Culture

A government plan to lease out Haefligers and Murrays Cottages in Hill End reinforces its total disregard for the arts

Nestled in the creative township of Hill End, just under an hour's drive from Bathurst, sits Haefligers Cottage. It was a place where John Olsen nursed his son Tim and Brett Whiteley tended to its gardens. Less than 600 metres down the road, you'll find its sibling Murrays Cottage, with a stove tiled at the hands of the late Margaret Olley. For more than 80 years, they've been a creative haven for Australian artists and since 1994 and 2003 respectively, both have been sites for Australia's most sought after artist-in-residence programs. Yet, a new plan from NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to lease out these cottages for commercial use could see this extraordinary cultural legacy cease to exist.


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What does NSW Parks and Wildlife Service have planned for the cottages?

On March 7, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) put out a notice calling for expressions of interests from businesses willing to take over the lease at Haefligers and Murrays Cottage. Adding insult to injury, the notice was titled "Historic Hill End cottages seeking new lease of life". Depending on who takes on this lease, this means that both cottages, each imbued with its own unique history, could be converted into a cafe or motel in order to bring in revenue.

"Experienced operators are invited to submit business proposals that are consistent with the environmental, cultural and heritage values of the cottages and Hill End Historic Site," said NPWS Acting Director Andrew Thornton. "It is important to ensure the site is protected and conserved to safeguard its valuable history."

The irony is that the artists residencies are key to not just conserving the site and safeguarding its valuable history, but ensuring that the legacy continues. With the cottages no longer used as a creative hub for the arts community, and instead turned into a business or "short stay accommodation" as suggested by Thornton, the history hits a dead end and the space loses its soul. Art is once again reinforced as an unviable career.

What's more, this couldn't have come at a worse time. It's no secret that the pandemic has flattened the arts community in Australia, with galleries force to close over lockdown and artists losing most if not all their work. Movements like #TakeYourSeats have brought the impact of Covid-19 on the arts community into focus, but this news comes as yet another reminder that the Australian Government cares little for its arts and cultural industries.

When we talk about the Federal and State Governments undercutting the arts, this is exactly what we mean. It would rather capitalise on its art history than allow other artists to carry on the baton.

What is the significance of Haefligers and Murrays cottages to the arts community?

Naturally, the news has not been taken lightly by artists and arts workers. Over Instagram painter Luke Sciberras posted about the NPWS's plans, in a clarion call to his community. He said, "the owners of the cottages the National Parks and Wildlife people (service) have decided to fling out the cottages to short term leases or to any high bidder who decides they’d like to cash in on decades of a civilised community".

He also touched on the significance of the Hill End sites to Australian art. Pointing out that prior to NPWS purchasing both cottages in the 1980s as part of a conservation program, Haefligers and Murrays cottages were managed "beautifully" by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

Aside from carving out much needed space for emerging and established artists to further their practice, the cottage residencies tied artists to this immense cultural history of those who have come before to be moved by the landscape of Hill End.

Since the inception of the Hill End Artists in Residence Program in 1994, 340 artists from Australia and overseas have participated in the month-long program, producing extensive bodies of work. In recent years, the cottages have hosted artists like Ben Quilty, Anne Zahalka, Prue Stent, Guy Maestri, and Tamara Dean to name a few.

A cultural hub doesn't have to have a cafe or a motel planted within it to be of value to the community. Initiatives like those provides at Haefligers and Murrays cottages are the lifeblood of a thriving cultural and creative scene. They cut a path forward for artists who wish to practice in Australia, but due to a lack of opportunity are being forced overseas. And without them, the state of art in Australia would be too dire to warrant a mention.

How can we help?

According to artist Luke Sciberras, the best way to preserve this legacy and route for artists is to use your voice. Spread the word. Write to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, particularly representatives in the Blue Mountains and register your protest.

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Images via @luke__sciberras