Lighting up 20 years at the Coffs Harbor Regional Gallery

As the Coffs Harbor Regional Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s time to reflect on its humble beginnings in a small office space through to maturity in a new home, Yarrila Arts & Museum (YAM), which will open in late 2022. Yarrila is the local Gumbaynggirr word for illuminating, illuminating or illustrating.

The list of people who made the Coffs Harbor Regional Gallery a reality in 2001 is even longer than the time to get there, and the role it plays in community enrichment is complex. Whether it’s inspiring audiences and supporting artists, caring for collections and educating young people, at the heart of the gallery is the drive to champion cultural development in the region.

“Twenty years ago, a group of passionate people working with the support of the Council helped establish the regional gallery, and from the start, it has hosted exciting exhibitions and creative events that bring our community together,” said Lisa Knowlson, Acting Gallery Coordinator.

An existing office building, Rigby House, was acquired by the Council to house the new gallery and library on the ground floor. Initially, the new regional gallery opened with only half of the current floor space, before expanding a year later into all the space you see today.

A group of volunteers, the Friends of Coffs Harbor Regional Gallery, is there to support the gallery over the years with events and fundraisers.

“It has become a special place for all of us to connect with culture,” said Friends president Heather McKinnon. “One of the gallery’s most significant accomplishments over the years has been to build relationships with our Gumbaynggirr community. We are proud to have played a role in the gallery’s progression, including sponsoring STILL and expanding the collection of still life art.

The Friends have contributed works ranging from Archibald laureate Ben Quilty to doomed artist William Beulow Gould circa 1840, and this year will fund seven STILL acquisitions, including one by artist Bidjara Michael Cook. The gallery’s iconic art award since 2017, STILL: National Still Life Award builds on the previous success of EMSLA, first premiered in 2007.

Over twenty years ago, Toni Southwell returned to her hometown of Coffs Harbor with an arts degree and joined the effort to create the regional gallery.

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

Opening with a paid position for a gallery manager, Toni, like many young people in the regions, moved to Sydney to find work, but is now back in the gallery as a program facilitator. She says a regional gallery bridges the gap for local artists who often struggle to find a place to exhibit.

Galerie Première Exhib.jpg

“Over the years, many local artists have seen their work exhibited here and shared their stories or creative practices,” adds Toni, who looks forward to the largest specially designed gallery at YAM.

One of the first exhibitions in 2001 was Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbor & Regions, which brought together works representing the region by local artists and well-known names like Dunghutti artist Robert Campbell Jnr. Two decades later, works by artists Gumbaynggirr would open YAM in a potential reinterpretation of this concept titled, Yaam Gumbaynggirr Jagun, Here Is Gumbaynggirr Country.

In the photo above:

  • Heather McKinnon & Uncle Richard Widders at STILL 2021. Image from Fire & Fly Media.
  • One of the first exhibitions in 2001
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James C. Tibbs