Broken link for Artlink

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Artlink staff Gayle Clark, who has since resigned, and Jenny Altmann, with artist Alex Rees who is one of the program’s many success stories.

Analysis – Carol Altmann

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] J [/dropcap]ust when things were looking up for Artlink – the unique art program for people with disabilities – it is being taken out of Warrnambool’s CBD and dropped into the industrial estate. From here, it will surely wither and die.

We wrote about Artlink late last year and, like others before us, were impressed by what a small, hard-working group of artists has achieved in bringing so-called “outsider” art into the mainstream.

Art by people with disabilities is a growing, global movement and the opportunity to create, display and sell art in a high-profile public space is critical to its commercial and personal success, otherwise we have not moved on from the dark days of such work being created in “sheltered workshops”; well away from the mainstream.

It makes sense, then, that the success of Artlink hinges on its high-profile location in the 124-year-old Ellerslie College building in Koroit St, which was leased by Western District Employment Access (WDEA) in 2010 and which it beautifully refurbished to create a light-filled gallery. (WDEA still uses this image on its home page).

The gallery had hosted several successful exhibitions, including the wonderful, annual Warrnibald portrait prize that was first held in 2012 and has shown the potential to become something very special for the city. Several Artlink artists have also developed their own following, such as Alex Rees, who has Down’s Syndrome, and whose work now hangs in many Warrnambool homes.

Things were gathering momentum, but now the wheels have fallen off.


artlink building
Home no more: Artlink has moved out of the beautiful Ellerslie College building and into the industrial estate.
The Albert St building where Artlink will be co-located with various WDEA work schemes.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] T [/dropcap]he three-year lease on the Ellerslie College building expired last December and, for reasons which are yet to be fully explained, WDEA decided not to continue there but to instead find another home for Artlink.

That new home was announced by media release as being 11 Albert St, Warrnambool: where Artlink was once 150 metres from the WDEA headquarters in Fairy St, it is now 150 metres from an abattoir.

Eleven Albert St is where WDEA operates many of its work programs that involve recycling e-waste, clothing, garden waste etc and it is appropriate that these be located in an industrial estate, but an art program and art gallery?

How many people will wander into an industrial estate to see an exhibition? How many drinks-and-nibbles openings can you host with the smell of the meatworks wafting in through the windows?

In its media statement, WDEA says it hopes the Artlink artists will have their work displayed in other galleries around the city, but if this was as easy as it sounds, surely there would have been no need for Artlink in the first place.

The official reason for moving out of Ellerslie was “high operational costs”, but when I asked what these costs were, I was told that WDEA CEO Mick White didn’t wish to give any more detail. How strange.


The $3.5 million WDEA headquarters in Fairy St, Warrnambool, that opened last year.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] S [/dropcap]o I can’t tell you what these high operational costs were, but I can tell you that there is a lot of money in disability: not necessarily for those with disabilities, most of whom struggle financially, but in the provision of services for the disabled and those in need.

In 2009, WDEA had a total income of $6.7 million, the majority of which is government funding for the various services WDEA provides. In 2013, that total income was almost $16 million: almost triple that of four years ago.

While more funding means more programs and therefore more people being assisted, what troubles me is that fast-growing organisations like WDEA can also become bloated and vast amounts of money are soaked up by bureaucracy and buildings, rather than on the very people they are intended to serve.

Shortly after WDEA secured the lease on Ellerslie, it bought a property at 52 Fairy St, hired talented local architect Dean Picken, and built an impressive $3.5 million office block that opened last July – six months before it broke the news to Artlink that it was moving out.

Here are some more of WDEA’s operational costs: staff costs have climbed from $3.3 million in 2009 to $9.2 million in 2013. In the same period, the value of its car pool has climbed from $697,000 to $1.34 million and the annual cost of running these cars each year has more than doubled to $236,518. Advertising and marketing costs have similarly climbed from $158,000 in 2009 to $338,825  in 2012.

WDEA has been hugely successful – it now operates out of a growing number of regional towns including Horsham, Ballarat, Ararat and Stawell – but has it become so big as to lose sight of why it first began in 1989?

When you are small, like Artlink, it is easy to get lost in the never-ending expansions.

It is up to us, as a community, to ensure that they are not forgotten.

Disclaimer: Artlink artist and staff member Jenny Altmann and I share the same surname because she was once married to my brother. We remain friends, but, like most of my friends and family, she would prefer I did not write articles that feature her. Sorry Jenny.

Logo Smile newsletter

More opinion pieces…


Losing sleep over a lot of rubbish

Close Flagstaff Hill; save Fletcher Jones

 A little less conversation, a little more action

When scrutiny is sub-standard, democracy suffers




15 thoughts on “Broken link for Artlink”

  1. Good article Carol. I read with sadness that Artlink was being shoved off to the nether regions of W’bool. Good financial journalism is one way to make community organisations and not-for-profits more accountable. Otherwise, us outsiders accept that some of the less palatable decisions are inevitable because we assume not-for-profits are run on shoestrings. This is what makes Bluestone worth reading.

  2. What an absolute load of rubbish, WDEA have helped countless numbers of people and continue to do so. They took on Vantage when nobody else wanted to and have protected the working conditions for all of the employees that depend on those jobs. This is so one sided it’s not funny, you are no better than today tonight or a current affair. This is the first and last time I ever go to this website . You could have at least reported on the trust they have! How much money did they give to the community last year?

    1. Indeed Ben, we have previously reported, in depth, on what a fabulous job Artlink and WDEA have done for the community. We are simply making clear to readers what is happening right now, and how disappointing that is to many people.

    2. After assisting with what must have been an expensive refurbishment of the Ellersley building, I was shortly after made redundant as an Art mentor by WDEA due to financial constraints, while other WDEA staff were off interstate on work junkets. I think WDEA has indeed lost sight of it’s reason for existence, even if there are still some statistics to support claims for Govt funding.

  3. Thanks for your comments Ben, but you haven’t said if you agree with this move. It goes without saying that WDEA has done and will continue to do many good things – after all, that is what it is funded to do – but what are your views on Artlink being relocated? This is the issue at hand.

  4. What funding is there for these sorts of things? Also, the journo comments about income but what about actual profit? little or no profit + no income = bad news for anything that isn’t pulling it’s weight.

    But yes, it goes without saying it would’ve been great to see this gallery remain open.

    1. These are good questions, Peter. WDEA funding comes from a variety of sources, but primarily Federal Government departments (ie. taxpayer funds) who pay groups like WDEA to deliver a range of employment and disability support programs. In 2010, WDEA had a total income of $10.2m and spent $8.4m, leaving a $1.4m surplus/profit. Its total surplus for that year (ie. an accumulation over the years) was $9.7m. By 2011, total income was $13.6m, spending was $11.7m and the annual surplus was $1.8m, with an accumulated surplus of $11.5m. By 2013 (post the Vantage takeover), WDEA had an income of $15.8m and spent $15.9, which led to a small operating ‘loss’ – but it retained an accumulated surplus of $14.6m, including $11m in cash and term deposits. To quote its director of Corporate Services, Jason Ernst, “WDEA is in a very healthy financial position”.
      Some people may see the term “not-for-profit” and assume organisations like WDEA are either broke or run on the smell of an oily rag. Instead, WDEA has shown its ability to grow and prosper, which is a credit to its corporate team, but again begs the question of why a small program like Artlink has been the victim of funding cuts.

  5. Just found this online article:

    So let me get this straight…

    The organisation above made a $110,000 loss while extending it’s services and taking on a flailing supported employment and day services program and you guys are worried about having an art gallery shifted??? Or should they have left all those people without a job or anywhere to be cared for and kept the gallery?

    I can appreciate that the journalist here is probably working for love rather than money, but it only takes a simple Google search to get the whole story.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your feedback, but we had read this story, among others, plus the last three annual reports on which we based our piece. A $110,000 operating loss out of an almost $16 million budget is not excessive and, no doubt, this small loss will lead to significant long-term growth, hence WDEA embraced the opportunity for such an expansion. WDEA described this expansion as one of the most exciting opportunities it has had since its inception. (It is also worth noting that in 2011-12, WDEA posted a $1 million profit and, last year, had $14.6m held in reserve). The point of our article is that programs like Artlink, while small, were once the essence of what groups like WDEA are all about: supporting people with disabilities in a variety of ways that give them independence and self-confidence while, at the same time, building a connection with the wider community. Artlink has achieved this in spades, but it appears that its “cost-effectiveness” has since failed the test. Art rarely makes a lot of money for an organisation, but it can change lives.

      1. Hi Carol.
        I guess we don’t really know what income this particular art program contributed to the organisation. Obviously a loss, but how much?
        Either way, if a business starts losing money changes need to be made before it goes broke and as much as I think it’s a great initiative I’d rather see an art gallery get shifted than employment programs get the cut. I also think that if it was that simple why don’t we see so many other community based organisations emulate or indeed take it on?

        It also seems that WDEA are still making a healthy contribution to the community through their other programs by “supporting people with disabilities in a variety of ways that give them independence and self-confidence while, at the same time, building a connection with the wider community” as you put it.

        1. We usually avoid publishing anonymous comments, but I wanted the opportunity to respond to this one by saying that, from my understanding and reading of WDEA reports, Artlink was never designed to be a money making venture. To expect an art gallery of this nature to turn a profit or even cover its operational costs fully is an almost impossible ask, especially within two or three years, which is as long as it has lasted.
          Artlink was, instead, set up to do exactly what you have mentioned in your quote marks above – and would be cross subsidised, to some extent, by other more profitable arms of WDEA.
          WDEA knew this when they started Artlink and was committed enough to invest a significant amount of funds into setting up the gallery space.
          The question remains as to why it has been effectively shut down within three years, especially when WDEA is – overall – in an incredibly strong financial position and growing.
          Unfortunately WDEA refuse to reveal any more details on the Artlink decision, so we shall have to make up our own minds.

          1. If they went to the trouble to set it up, why do you think they would shift it without good reason? They are still putting resources into it are they not? If they did not care about it then they would cut it all together.

            I also wouldn’t call a $110,000 loss growth. It’s obvious that if they have grown their organisation, so to does income and unfortunately costs. Hence why it’s misleading to look at revenue as opposed to profit – unless you are trying to mislead your readers which is exactly what you seem to have done in the article above.

            There was a time when journalism used to be about reporting all the facts and giving readers the full story. All I see in this article are misleading figures, negatives, one-sided opinions and suppositions about “growth”.

            Anyway, it’s been fun. Ciao.

  6. Peter, the financial figures for WDEA speak for themselves. Take a moment to read the annual reports and you shall see that its overall financial position is very strong.
    As a journalist of the past 25 years, I am certainly still about reporting the facts and certainly not about misleading readers – we leave that to others.

  7. What would you expect from an organisation that has removed the water cooler from its furniture manufacturing operation in Hamilton. 20+ people living with disabilities drinking warm water from a tap in this hot weather. I will say its a safe bet that there is clean, cool drinking water in the new 3.5 million dollar palace in Warrnambool. This is an organisation which has lost its way and is now purely dollar driven. Shame about Artlink, but not surprising.

Comments are closed.