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ECU art curator departs
Former Edith Cowan University curator Connie Petrillo.

The internal drama over the direction of the Edith Cowan University Art Collection has taken another twist with the departure of curator Connie Petrillo.

Ms Petrillo said she could no longer operate in her downgraded part-time job after her authority had been removed and she could not spend any money on acquisitions.

"I couldn't make any decisions about things," she said. "It was destroying me. I was so upset all the time and as much as I wanted to stay I couldn't fight it anymore. ECU has an amazing collection and it is a shame that it has gone down that path."

ECU came under fire in March when it proposed dispensing with a curator and shifting control of its $14 million collection of 3500 artworks to its building maintenance department. Critics included University of WA cultural precinct director Ted Snell, former Art Gallery of WA director, Alan Dodge, and prominent collector and ECU donor, Jo Lagerberg.

In a compromise, ECU said the curator would remain on a reduced part-time basis and work with the Facilities and Services Centre and the school of communications and arts to run the collection.

Ms Petrillo left ECU earlier this month and has begun work in the newly created role of curator and arts manager at St John of God Murdoch Hospital.

"St John's has got a fantastic attitude and seems to be open to making their very young collection of 100 works really grow and they believe in the holistic approach to art and medicine," she said.

"They want to improve the art for patients, visitors and caregivers here to try to make them all feel better. They have created this position especially and they were so rapt to get me I was just gobsmacked."

In a letter to members, National Tertiary Education Union ECU branch president Geoff Lummis said the cultural knowledge, expertise and passion Ms Petrillo had brought to the ECU collection had seen it transformed into one of the finest in WA.

Dr Lagerberg, who has donated artworks to ECU and other institutions, such as the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of WA, said she feared for the future of the ECU collection.

"They will have to find out for themselves that this approach is not going to work. I don't think they realise how much work a curator does," Dr Lagerberg said.

For the sake of saving a small amount of money, the move could devalue the collection and damage ECU's reputation, she said.

"It was probably one of the best university collections in Australia. I had works I was going to donate and I have said, no, they are not going there because I don't want to donate works if they are probably not going to be looked after."

ECU vice-chancellor Professor Kerry Cox said Sue Starken had been appointed part-time to manage the collection, assisted part-time by Stuart Elliott as a facilities officer. Both were artists with extensive art management experience, Professor Cox said.

"ECU has developed a plan to improve significantly the management of the collection, including improving the database, security and storage processes," he said. "We are also looking forward to better utilisation of the collection and we are planning for regular exhibitions of parts of the collection at ECU's Spectrum Project Space."

ECU intended to exhibit works overseas through university exchange arrangements, Professor Cox said. ECU had maintained its acquisitions and restorations budget but he would not say what that was.

The collection includes works by Sidney Nolan, Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Howard Taylor and Hans Heysen. Its origins date back to 1902 at Claremont Teachers' College, where it was seen as vital in providing a cultured atmosphere for the training of young people.