Illuminating 20 Years at Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery

As Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery celebrates 20 years, it’s time to reflect on humble beginnings in a tiny office space to its coming of age in a new home, Yarrila Arts & Museum (YAM), opening in 2023. Yarrila is the local Gumbaynggirr word for illuminate, brighten or illustrate.

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

“Twenty years ago a group of passionate people working with the support of council helped establish the regional gallery, and since the beginning it’s staged exciting exhibitions and creative events that bring our community together,” says Acting Gallery Coordinator, Lisa Knowlson.

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 just half of the current area, before expanding a year later into the full space you see today.

There to support the gallery over the years with events and fundraising, has been volunteer group, the Friends of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery. “It has become a special place for us all to connect with culture,” says Friends’ President, Heather McKinnon. “One of the most important achievements of the gallery over the years has been building the relationship with our Gumbaynggirr community. We’re proud to have played a part in the gallery’s progression, including sponsoring STILL and expanding the collection of still life art.”

The Friends have contributed works ranging from Archibald-winner Ben Quilty to convict artist William Beulow Gould c.1840, and this year will fund seven acquisitions from STILL including a work by Bidjara artist Michael Cook. The gallery’s signature art prize since 2017, STILL: National Still Life Award has built on the previous success of EMSLA, first established in 2007. The biennial STILL Award was created and established by Cath Fogarty, Cultural Development, Gallery and History Services Coordinator (2016 – 2021) and her team in 2017.

Over twenty years ago, Toni Southwell had returned to her hometown of Coffs Harbour with an arts’ degree and joined the effort to set-up the regional gallery. “I was a youth representative on the working party when council sought input from artists, art groups, consultants and people across the community,” Toni says.

Opening with one paid position for a Gallery Director, Toni, like many young people in the regions, moved onto Sydney to secure work but is now back in the gallery as Programs Facilitator. She says a regional gallery bridges the gap for local artists who often struggle to find somewhere to exhibit.

“Over the years many local artists have had their work shown here and shared their stories or creative practice,” adds Toni, who is looking forward to the larger, purpose-built gallery at YAM.

One of the first exhibitions in 2001 was Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbour & Regions, which brought together works depicting the region by local artists and well-known names like Dunghutti artist, Robert Campbell Jnr. Two decades later, works by Gumbaynggirr artists will open YAM in a potential re-interpretation of this concept titled, Yaam Gumbaynggirr Jagun, here is Gumbaynggirr country.

Revisit 20 years of exhibitions and see the collection of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, on Coffs Collections at;

follow the story of the development of the Regional Gallery in our scrapbook of newspaper articles, on Coffs Collections at;

borrow the catalogues for the 20th year exhibitions from our libraries, to view the exhibitions again at your leisure; and

read other publications by and about the Gallery.

Cath Fogarty at the event marking the closure of the Gallery. May 2022. Photography Lyndon Jarman.
Uncle Richard Widders and Heather McKinnon opening STILL 2021, Fire & Fly Media
20 years in 2021
Rigby House – And the trees photography
Lisa Knowlson, Gallery, Museum, and Public Art Coordinator (Acting)  Fire & Fly Media
Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbour and Region October 2001  Coffs Harbour Regional Museum item 19.365