7 December 2023

Poor storage puts Cooktown's invaluable art collection at serious risk

| Chisa Hasegawa
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Vera Scarth-Johnson

Former Cooktown resident donated her invaluable art collection to the community. Photo: Supplied (Vera Scarth-Johnson papers, Nature’s Powerhouse).

Invaluable artworks that depict Cooktown’s natural environment are being put at risk by budget cuts that have compromised its storage.

Vera Scarth-Johnson donated her art to Cooktown, hoping it would encourage people to appreciate and protect the region’s natural environment.

However it is now at risk of damage because of less-than-ideal storage conditions and the race is on to save Ms Scarth-Johnson’s gift to the community.

Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery Association secretary Barbara Leys said the collection had been declared of national significance.

“(It) belongs to the people of Cooktown,” she said. “But recent evidence has shown how inadequate the climatic conditions are in the room where all of Vera’s artworks are held when not on display.”

Vera Scarth-Johnson hoped her illustrations would inspre residents to care for the flora. Photo: Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery Association.

Endeavour River is the only known botanical art collection of its type in regional Australia – that is, as a comprehensive record of the flora of a particular region, as the work of a local artist and conservationist, and finally as a public collection.

The collection is kept and displayed at Nature’s Powerhouse, built specifically to house Ms Scarth-Johnson’s works, but budgetary issues had “dictated the need for compromises” in the storage room design.

Ms Leys said these compromises resulted in the storage room, known to the association as the “bunker”, doubling as a hallway.

“Normally, an art storage room is a climate controlled, isolated, safe area,” she said.

“Our bunker is clearly inappropriate, and this puts Vera’s precious artwork at great risk.”

She said they have already discovered mould on at least one painting, and many others were damaged and needed attention.

“We have been advised by conservators that artwork on paper is particularly difficult to remedy once damaged by mould, at times impossible as well as being expensive,” she said.

The association recently applied for a grant which they hope will provide funds for the work needed.

“Vera’s collection belongs to the people of Cooktown and deserves to be looked after,” she said.

Ms Leys is a newer member to the association, but is passionate about preserving Ms Scarth-Johnson’s legacy.

“I knew Vera and had close friends involved in the association,” she said. “I do it for them, and also because I think it would be a damn shame to let such a generous gift disintegrate.”

She encouraged anyone interested in preserving this important part of Cooktown’s history to become a member of the association.

The association committee is also working on printing a second edition of Ms Scarth-Johnson’s book, redesigning the gallery and bringing back the Charles Tanner wildlife display.

“We are all busy people, but we feel the value of it,” she said.

“I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be involved as we are working on a diverse range of fronts.”

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