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Hazelhurst Arts Centre at Gymea a sight for sore eyes for artists such as George Gittoes

Artistic space: George Gittoes, left, with others including Hazelhurst chairman Byron Hurst, far right, says there were no art facilities in the area when he was growing up. Picture: John Veage
Artistic space: George Gittoes, left, with others including Hazelhurst chairman Byron Hurst, far right, says there were no art facilities in the area when he was growing up. Picture: John Veage

When celebrated artist and filmmaker George Gittoes was growing up in St George in the 1950s and 60s, there were no facilities for people like himself with a talent for the arts.

Instead, if he wanted to gain kudos amongst his tough Kogarah High School mates, he had to excel on the football field.

Fast forward to 2020, and the pride he obviously feels that he was a small part of bringing a celebrated regional gallery and arts centre to Sutherland Shire, where he lived for much of his career, is clearly palpable.

"For me, as a boy who went to Kogarah High School and had an interest in the arts, there was nothing for me," Gittoes recalled during a photo shoot at Hazelhurst Arts Centre to celebrate its 20th birthday.

"When I was growing and attending school, there was no acknowledgement of the arts in this area.

"I got acknowledgement on the football field playing rugby league. I did not get respect for being an artist."

In fact, it would take many years, and a move out of the area, before Gittoes received the respect he craved.

He helped found The Yellow House artist's cooperative in Potts Point in the 1960s. (Two more later followed in Afghanistan and Arncliffe, so young artists could hone their creative talents).

Heart for art: George Gittoes at The Yellow House he founded in Arncliffe in 2012. Picture: Chris Lane

Heart for art: George Gittoes at The Yellow House he founded in Arncliffe in 2012. Picture: Chris Lane

By the time Hazelhurst chairman Byron Hurst came knocking at his door, Gittoes was living in Bundeena, and joined the push to have a regional arts centre built in Sutherland Shire.

He joined the steering committee, while other local artists, such as Bob Marchant and Garry Shead (who would become a founding board member of Hazelhurst), championed the cause.

Together, they did all they could to convince Sutherland Shire Council, and some of its residents, that art mattered in the shire.

"There was tremendous opposition at the time. There were people writing letters saying 'We don't have artists here. We need more sports fields'," Gittoes said.

Mr Hurst, then a Sutherland Shire councillor, recalls an impassioned plea that Gittoes gave to councillors as a turning point in the debate.

"At the end of it there were people that were in tears," he said.

"I think having top respected artists on our committee and board really helped."

Looking around the gallery today, it is clear Gittoes has a sense of pride.

"My past exhibition here broke records and to me it's about young kids who can come here and know the arts is at the heart of the shire," he said.

Gittoes also paid tribute to Hazelhurst's curator Carrie Kibbler.

"She is, in my opinion, the best curator in Australia at the moment and I know them all," he said.