Hill End artists’ cottages are put out to tender, causing panic in the arts community

For nearly 80 years, the historic village of Hill End has been instrumental in the careers of hundreds of Australian artists.

John Olsen, Russell Drysdale, Ben Quilty and Margaret Olley are among those who have been drawn to the artistic “mecca” over the years.

But many in the arts community fear his legacy is under threat as the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) puts Hill End cottages up for tender for the first time.

The ongoing expression of interest process could mean that chalets are no longer available for artist residencies, which will cause political backsliding from the top.

Jean Bellette, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Bonnie Drysdale in front of Haefliger’s cottage in 1956.(ABC News)

A special place

Only prospectors have traveled the flint road to Hill End more than visual artists. For resident and artist Luke Sciberras, it’s almost the same either way.

“There is a history of artists living in Hill End which I think gives young artists something to look forward to,” he said.

“The idea that you could realize your full potential in a place widely understood by artists and non-artists alike.”

A man sits in a shed and looks at the night sky.
Luke Sciberras captured in an early Hill End studio by photographer R Ian Lloyd.(Provided: State Library of NSW)

“It really is Mecca,” said Sarah Gurich, director of the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

Waves of artists

The first wave artists, as they were called, followed Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend through the mountains to the vast hollow landscape and distinct light of Hill End in the late 1940s.

Friend became so enchanted with Hill End on this trip that he bought a cottage with his partner, Donald Murray, and it became known as Murray’s Cottage.

Jean Bellette and her art critic husband Peter Haefliger followed suit with the purchase of Haefliger’s house and a scene was born.

An oil painting of a church interior.
Vespers, Hill End. Painting by Russell Drysdale of a church interior in 1948.(Supplied: National Gallery of Victoria)

Jeffrey Smart, David Strachan and Margaret Olley began making the pilgrimage to cottages to live and work.

Drysdale would also return for longer stays.

In the 1960s, John Olsen and his young family fled Sydney for the bracing air and creative solitude of Hill End, followed closely by Brett Whiteley, Michael Johnson and John Firth-Smith.

In fact, the keys to the Murray and Haefliger cottages were passed between established and emerging artists on an ongoing basis until last year, when the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery decided not to renew its leases.

A still life painting.
Still life by Jean Bellette, painted during his stay at Haefliger’s cottage.(Provided: Bathurst Regional Art Gallery)

“It’s not just the story of two cottages that suddenly became artists’ residences,” Mr. Sciberras said.

“There is an extremely rich visual history of the paintings, drawings and photographs, of the life in and around and of the interiors of these cottages that go back a very long way.

What is the threat?

Hill End Historic Village has been managed by the NPWS since 1967.

Upon his death in 1991, Bellette bequeathed Haefliger’s cottage to the NPWS to manage artist residencies.

In his 1994 book and exhibition for the Art Gallery of NSW – Hill End: Art, Life and Landscape – curator Gavin Wilson succinctly highlighted the village’s unique place in the soul of Australian fine art.

This prompted the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery to formalize the Hill End Artist-in-Residence program from 1999, taking over the leases for the cottage.

Haefliger Cottage
Haefliger’s house has been a nurturing space for artists since the 1940s.(ABC News)

The threat described by Mr Sciberras is something the NPWS calls a routine government declaration of interest process – a free market approach to renewing chalet leases.

It is the first of its kind compared to the Murray and Haefliger cottages and technically opens them up to other uses like short-term accommodation.

Mr Sciberras says he sent “hundreds of desperate comments” in response to the news.

“There are so many artists of all kinds who care deeply about these cottages and have a very, very deep connection to them through their work, but also for many their family life started here,” he said. -he declares.

A necessary reflection

As a tenant for over 20 years, the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and Bathurst Regional Council define the process as “a necessary overhaul”.

Gallery director Sarah Gurich said she was confident the benefits outweighed the risks of putting the chalets up for tender.

“We view the EOI process as an opportunity to negotiate more sustainable models for the program and to negotiate more sustainable lease agreements with the NPWS,” Ms. Gurich said.

An exterior chalet with garden.
Murray’s cottage lease was put on the open market for the first time.(ABC News)

Maintenance of the property had been an ongoing sticking point, with structural heritage factors requiring more engagement from the NPWS as they went beyond the scope of a gallery, she added.

“The current lease is commercial, which means the upkeep of the property is the responsibility of the tenant,” she said.

“Murray’s cottage, for example, has a fantastic tiled stove which was installed by Margaret Olley and Donald Friend – it is on the state heritage register.

“[The gallery feels] it is important that National Parks work with the tenant to ensure the properties are properly preserved.”

A black and white photo of a woman standing outside a colonial cottage.
A Hill End cottage in 1871. It is possible to see the symmetry that appealed to artists.(Provided: State Library of NSW)

In a statement, the NPWS said an evaluation committee would evaluate the applications based on the EOI criteria.

“The process ensures that the best possible outcome, consistent with the environmental, cultural and heritage values ​​of the site, is achieved for village residents, park visitors and the general public,” he said.

Ministers and the national gallery weigh in

The outpouring of emotion and anxiety from some of Australia’s most beloved entertainers has reached the upper echelons of NSW’s parliament.

In a candid Instagram post, Arts Minister Ben Franklin pledged to work with the council, the NPWS and Environment Minister James Griffin to do ‘everything I can’ to ensure the sites are conserved as artist residencies.


Both ministers declined interview requests.

In a statement, National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich said “Hill End is an important site for the nation’s artistic heritage.”

“The continued success of the Artist-in-Residence program is an important part of providing opportunities for artists.”

What’s at stake is what’s yet to come

Mr Sciberras cites the recent opening of Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon estate as an example of what he calls a “faith in the future” of governments.

The Boyd family donated Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s former residence to the NSW government, which has been transformed into a multi-million dollar arts and architecture district which opened earlier this year.

An aerial view of Bundanon
A new art space built into the hillside on the Boyds’ estate, Bundanon.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

It is a tribute to Boyd’s work but also a safe space for the development of new work.

“It should be felt as vividly as history.”

Closing of expressions of interest for lodges on May 2.

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