20 Years of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery

As Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery celebrates 20 years, it’s time to reflect on humble beginnings. What began in a tiny office space will come of age in 2022 in a new home — Yarrila Arts & Museum (YAM). Yarrila is the local Gumbaynggirr word for illuminate, brighten or illustrate.

Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery 20 years
Lisa Knowlson

20 Years of Community Enrichment

The list of people who made Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery a reality in 2001 is even longer than the timeline to get there. The role it plays in enriching the community is complex. The gallery inspires audiences and supports artists, cares for collections and educates youth. At the gallery’s heart remains the drive to champion cultural development in the region.

“Twenty years ago, a group of passionate people working with the support of council helped establish the regional gallery, and since the beginning it’s staged exciting exhibitions and creative events that bring our community together,” says Acting Gallery Coordinator, Lisa Knowlson.

An existing office building, Rigby House, was acquired by council to house the new gallery and library on the ground floor. Initially the new Regional Gallery opened with just half of the current area. A year later it expanded into the full space you see today.

Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery 20 years
Heather McKinnon & Uncle Richard Widders

A Little Help From Their Friends

There to support the gallery over the years with events and fundraising, has been volunteer group, the Friends of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery.

“It has become a special place for us all to connect with culture,” says Friends’ President, Heather McKinnon. “One of the most important achievements of the gallery over the years has been building the relationship with our Gumbaynggirr community.”

“We’re proud to have played a part in the gallery’s progression, including sponsoring STILL and expanding the collection of still life art.”

The Friends have contributed works ranging from Archibald-winner Ben Quilty to convict artist William Beulow Gould c.1840. This year they will fund seven acquisitions from STILL including a work by Bidjara artist Michael Cook. The gallery’s signature art prize since 2017, STILL: National Still Life Award has built on the previous success of EMSLA, first established in 2007.

Hometown Connection

Over twenty years ago, Toni Southwell had returned to her hometown of Coffs Harbour with an arts degree and joined the effort to set-up the regional gallery.

“I was a youth representative on the working party when council sought input from artists, art groups, consultants and people across the community,” Toni says.

She says a regional gallery bridges the gap for local artists who often struggle to find somewhere to exhibit.

“Over the years many local artists have had their work shown here and shared their stories or creative practice,” adds Toni, who is looking forward to the larger, purpose-built gallery at YAM.

Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery 20 years

One of the first exhibitions in 2001 was Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbour & Regions. It brought together works depicting the region by local artists and well-known names like Dunghutti artist, Robert Campbell Jnr. Two decades later, works by Gumbaynggirr artists will open YAM in a potential re-interpretation of this concept titled, Yaam Gumbaynggirr Jagun, here is Gumbaynggirr country.

Added to the gallery’s story has been adapting to COVID-19, opening exhibitions to the world online through 3D tours, while reaching younger audiences through TikTok. Amid this year’s closures, the gallery pulled off an ambitious 20th Anniversary program to celebrate the milestone. Starting this year with the prestigious Archibald Prize 2019 including the local Young Archie, the gallery then partnered Saltwater Freshwater Arts to present its 2021 award. The gallery’s signature prize, STILL 2021, was the biggest and most diverse yet. It further cemented Coffs as a centre for still life art. Now on show is The White Bluff Project, the result of local artists and community working together. Presenting exhibitions like this illustrates what a regional gallery is all about.

The 20th Celebration is December 14. Details here.

Revisit 20 years of exhibitions and the collection of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, on Coffs Collections.