Gold Coast HOTA Gallery’s first year has been ‘difficult’ but arts district attracts customers amid council scrutiny

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It’s been a “difficult” and “surreal” 12 months for the Gold Coast House of Arts, but the $60.5 million art gallery has seen record monthly visitor numbers, according to its chief executive.

The art gallery, funded by Gold Coast City Council, is the largest outside an Australian capital.

Home of the Arts (HOTA) chief executive Criena Gehrke said the gallery’s opening in the midst of a pandemic “was surreal”.

“Behind the scenes, it was quite difficult,” she said.

“We were working with about 10% of the workforce; we had to keep planning, there were issues with the supply chain, with the freight, with getting things through the gallery.”

While HOTA’s financial performance will break even or experience “a slight operating deficit” this year, Gehrke says April’s visitation numbers reflect the venue’s potential.

The $60.5 million Home of the Arts (HOTA) on the Gold Coast.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

April record for visits

Over 180,000 people have visited the HOTA Gallery in the past 12 months, including around 31,000 in April.

Last month, 8,450 customers attended HOTA’s cinema and nearly 15,000 attended live events, including 11,418 at three sold-out concerts on the outdoor stage.

sculpture of a naked woman with wings
The Messenger by artist Sam Jinks was featured at HOTA.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

While approximately 14,000 customers dined at the hospitality venues in the venue, 5,476 people visited the HOTA store and more than 10,000 visited the markets.

“It was like that ‘Oh, this is it’ moment,” Ms Gehrke said.

“I think it was pretty much unprecedented anywhere else in Australia for an institution to open a major cultural asset at that time.”

‘Top to bottom’ tour

Ms Gehrke said April’s visitation numbers matched projections made when planning the gallery four years ago, but ‘it has always been up and down with our visits over the past 12 months’ .

“During the summer with Omicron, we weren’t able to bring any artists here; there was a whole range of impacts with our staff falling ill,” she said.

a blue bridge on a sunny day with green plants in the foreground and people walking on it
The 130 meter long “Green Bridge” connects HOTA to Chevron Island. (Supplied: HOTA)

“We opened Lyrical Landscapes which was William Robinson’s fine collection of works in August and we were open for one day and then closed again for two weeks. [due to lockdown].”

HOTA expects to end this fiscal year with total revenue of $26 million.

“There is a high degree of investment from the City of Gold Coast and good Gold Coast taxpayers in this area,” Ms Gehrke said.

Gold Coast City Council provided $15.9 million for running costs this exercise, according to a HOTA spokesperson.

Approximately $10 million in revenue was raised through ticket sales, fundraising, and food and beverage sales.

The City of Gold Coast has spent $135 million in capital expenditure for the entire precinct, including the $19.5 million green bridge connecting HOTA to Chevon Island.

large outdoor stage at night with crowd
The City of Gold Coast has undertaken a review of the operation of the HOTA outdoor stage.(Supplied: HOTA)

Board review in progress

In November, the board decided to review HOTA after Mayor Tom Tate suggested the management of its $37 million outdoor stage could be contracted out to an outside operator, amid fears it had been under -used.

a scene with flowers in the foreground
HOTA’s outdoor stage on the Gold Coast had three sold-out concerts in April.(ABC Gold Coast)

“There is some complexity around bringing in an outside operator,” Ms Gehrke said.

“If that was the approach that had been decided, in terms of operating an enclosure with the gallery full ball, with the theaters full, with the parking lot, with the operational overlay”.

“When you think about the last two years… it just hasn’t been possible to have this level of gigs,” she said.

“But when you think back to April, we had three sold-out shows; we have reservations penciled in for upcoming shows throughout the year.

“I think the space is well used but, like I said, we welcome any alternative options because all we care about is HOTA’s success.”

‘Where do we go from here?’

The council discussed the first phase of the confidential review during a closed meeting last week.

It decided that “the city’s chief executive be authorized to engage a consultant (if necessary) to provide additional advice” on HOTA’s future operating model, “with the results of any consultation to be considered at a future council meeting”.

Councilors have also decided that requests for HOTA funding for capital works or exhibits will be submitted through a new licensing agreement “which includes the submission of a full business case.”

tom tate standing in front of media microphones
Tom Tate congratulated the HOTA Board of Directors.(ABC Gold Coast: Jennifer Huxley)

Mr Tate then says “they have [HOTA] from nothing at the same time as COVID inhibits all gatherings”, his main concern “is where do we go from here?”

“How do we encourage HOTA to be a bit more evolved when it comes to exhibits [are] concerned?” he said.

“It has been difficult but we are going in the right direction.”

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