Former arts minister Gordon Ramsay is walking on to a stage full of competing interests as the newly-appointed CEO of the ACT Government’s Cultural Facilities Corporation.
Mr Ramsay, who was a shock casualty of last year’s Assembly elections, chose his words carefully about his ambitions for the role after the 24-year tenure of Harriet Elvin.
He will have to preside over the recovery of a sector laid waste by the pandemic and manage tempered expectations for the proposed cultural precinct redevelopment amid a deteriorating ACT budget situation. This all comes at the same time as the government trumpets ambitions for Canberra to be the nation’s arts capital.
“What I’ll be looking to do is to make sure that as the budgetary decisions happen, as the design decisions happen, we are in the position for the best possible cultural precinct and new theatre,” he said.
“It’s a complex area to make sure that the precinct happens and the theatre happens the best possible way for the new world we are in.”
Whether all that happens is now in the lap of the financial gods, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr saying last month that there may not be a sod turned now until mid-decade, unless an ‘alternative revenue source’ comes from somewhere.
Mr Ramsay is also diplomatic when it comes to the growing frustration with the City Renewal Authority over the lack of progress and sense of drift on concrete designs for the new precinct.
He said the CFC and CRA had to work closely together, when asked whether he would be looking to drive the project more.
“I have a very positive relationship with the head of CRA (Malcolm Snow). I look forward to continuing that development and playing a really vital role in the design and then later, on the construction of the new cultural precinct and the theatre,” he said.
Mr Ramsay is more expansive on what a revitalised cultural precinct would offer Canberra, acknowledging that the current setting did not inspire Canberrans to flock to the city centre, despite their nation-leading love of the arts, the way he would like to see.
“It’s been said a number of times that the CBD is under-engaged,” he said.
Mr Ramsay envisages activity that stretches across the CBD enlivening it with all forms of art and cultural pursuits including live music, theatre and cultural exhibitions.
A bigger theatre would not only mean more shows being able to be staged in Canberra, but open up the potential for the national capital to produce more home-grown productions.
“It opens up to the chance of us not only hosting great theatre and great art, but helping to produce it,” Mr Ramsay said.
“That’s part of what I’d love to see more in Canberra. We have a whole range of areas where the arts are bubbling away right across our city and if the CFC can play a role in not only hosting the cultural activities but fostering it for this generation and the next, then if I have any role in that then my time will have been well spent.”
Asked whether he agreed that the Civic Square area was increasingly drab, especially now with the Constitution Place development changing the dynamics of the area, Mr Ramsay said there were certainly new opportunities for the new theatre and cultural precinct to connect to the new buildings.
“That’s an obvious connection, and enlivening that space and enlivening Civic Square is all part of what we can do to draw people into the city in a way that is enriching, engaging and exciting,” he said.
“It is not just something for the CFC – it’s something to do together with the CRA and most importantly, the community.”
More immediately, there is the job of getting people back to the theatre, galleries and historic places after the lockdown, and Mr Ramsay said the current CFC had done a great job.
“I’m not coming with a sense that there is any gap to fill, but I am coming with a sense that it is an important time for us to strengthen and rebuild,” he said.
“We have a wonderful screen and film industry that is burgeoning and growing in Canberra and I think there is a natural connection there,” Mr Ramsay said.
He also wants to see the CFC take its place alongside Canberra’s national cultural institutions.
But if anybody expects Mr Ramsay to draw on his political past to be calling in favours or bypassing protocols, they would be mistaken.
While his ministerial experience along with a range of other community roles obviously stood him in good stead when he contested the national recruitment process in which there were more than 20 rivals for the job, he will be playing by the rules.
“My accountability is to the board, head of service and the Minister,” he said.
“I understand the way the government works, but I’m certainly not going to be pulling any strings or asking for any favours – that’s just not the way I work,” he said.
Mr Ramsay will take up the position on 13 December.