Opinion by KYLIE WINKWORTH
After almost a decade of Liberal Party mismanagement of Ultimo’s Powerhouse Museum, NSW Minister for the Arts Don Harwin announced a $500 million transformation of the precinct into a hub dedicated to fashion and design.
It comes as another chapter of epic waste, stupidity and policy incoherence from the NSW Government, with the poor Powerhouse Museum still remaining yoked to the Government’s museum blunder at Parramatta.
Harwin is doing for the friends of the Powerhouse Museum what he’s done at Parramatta – breaking a promise made just a year ago, not consulting the community, not listening to expert advice, and disregarding the unique culture and collections of the museum particular to its history, design and context in Ultimo since 1893.
This Government has learnt nothing since November 2014. This is yet another museum policy by thought-bubble.
It is $500m the NSW Government doesn’t need to spend on shrinking the Powerhouse to be something other than what it is: Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences, and a museum of wonder and inspiration for generations of families.
The Powerhouse doesn’t need to be the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). It is silly to claim it has the most important design collection in Australia, especially since so many donors have lost confidence in the direction of the museum and have gifted their collections to museums in Canberra and Melbourne. And certainly, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet doesn’t want to pay for the required staffing establishment on the lines of the NGV.
This is yet another broken promise from the NSW Government, given it said last year that the Powerhouse Museum would retain its remit for technology, science, engineering and design. The Government said the Powerhouse Museum was saved. Instead, the mission and facilities of the Powerhouse are being downsized and amended without consultation, explanation or even a veneer of museum planning.
A changed identity
No thought has been given to the impact of turning the Powerhouse into a fashion and design museum when it’s traditionally attracted family and education audiences. The real waste is that we will have a hollowed-out Powerhouse, without the power and transport collections for which the museum was purpose-designed to display those great collections in conceptually resonant spaces. What is the Powerhouse Museum without power and transport? I think this is a form of cultural cleansing, and that Sydney is at risk of turning into a monoculture, all artist studios, contemporary art and function spaces instead of actual collections.
In the 10 years since the LNP came to government, the Powerhouse Museum has had four directors and lost nearly 40% of its staff. Its highly acclaimed regional program has disappeared, along with the Migration Heritage Centre. Over this period the Government, the MAAS Trust and successive directors have problematised the Powerhouse building as cover for failings of museum governance, competent management and programming. The Powerhouse building has already had one round of disastrous, ill-conceived alterations. Is it possible the problem is not the Powerhouse building, but government cuts, incompetent leadership and policy incoherence?
The Powerhouse Museum does not need a $500m building project. The architect of the Museum Lionel Glendenning appraised a program of maintenance and exhibition renewal at $200m. Add another $100m to rebuild the museum’s expertise and staff, and cancel the wasteful and unnecessary $200m Castle Hill development so the museum keeps its library and state of the art collection facilities on-site at Ultimo, and the Powerhouse might just survive as a much-loved family museum.
Looking beyond Ultimo
How can the Government justify $500m in unnecessary capital works on the Powerhouse Museum when there is no funding for museums in regional NSW, no funding for new museums in major cities such as Campbelltown, Penrith and Wollongong and no museum policy for NSW? But bizarrely the NSW Government has gifted a cultural institution to the very needy Hills Shire Council at Castle Hill. How is this a museum policy priority except as a cover for the unexplained, unnecessary and reckless eviction of the collections from the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo? The Government’s policy laziness is entrenching museum inequality and shortchanging communities in Western Sydney and regional NSW.
Ten years of museum cuts have left NSW mired in museum deficit and policy incoherence. Sydney will soon have two museums of contemporary art in the city, but no major public gallery between the city and Penrith. There is no Indigenous cultural centre for the city that claims to be Australia’s international tourism gateway. Sydney is at the bottom of 30 global peer cities for its number of museums. But there is no museum of NSW history, no migration heritage museum to celebrate our cultural diversity, and no gallery of Asian and Indian cultures, just for starters. There was once a nice museum in the Mint on Macquarie St, now closed. And what of Perrottet’s idea for a museum precinct in Macquarie St east? Is it one thought bubble replaced by another?
Reading between the lines I think the Powerhouse ‘transformation’ is likely to be more artist studios and commercial event spaces than exhibitions. All the NSW cultural institutions are sweating their real estate because they know the Government doesn’t want to fund the recurrent budgets. That is why Parramatta is not a museum but a commercially focussed Carriageworks West, the State Library is building a new café, venue hire spaces and a rooftop bar, and Sydney Modern is a function centre. That is why Sydney will never equal Melbourne for cultural vibrancy.
Here are some questions you could ask the Minister:
It’s just another chapter in the Powerhouse demolition saga.