Newsletter 342

Published June 15, 2020
'Fun Police', from Clary Akon's show at Australian Galleries. It's fun for some...

There is no greater mystery in New South Wales than the Premier’s stubborn desire to destroy the Powerhouse Museum. Even after the COVID-19 lockdown which has drained billions from the public purse – and will continue to do so for months, perhaps years – Gladys still wants to bulldoze a much acclaimed museum, demolish one of the last remaining heritage buildings in Parramatta, and erect an expensive new structure that would not even pretend to act as a replacement for what is lost. Furthermore it’s a project that nobody seems to want – nobody that is, except the Premier; Chair of the Western Sydney branch of the Sydney Business Chamber, David Borger, and Liberal MP, Geoff Lee.

The Business Chamber could hardly be taken as representative of the people of Parramatta, let alone the people of NSW who are losing a unique resource. Which businesses stand to make a dollar from this truly evil development? How can the government justify wasting a supposed $1.1 billon (although $2 billion is a more realistic figure), when it has proposed freezing teachers’ and nurses’ salaries to save $3 billion?

The latest excuse is the lamest one yet: the project will create jobs. Yes, like that other great employment opportunity – the Adani coalmine, it will create jobs for a few hundred workers while construction is underway. The “jobs” rhetoric is surely beginning to wear thin. Every time one hears a politician pronounce the word “jobs” it’s certain that something nasty is planned that will be bad news for the vast majority of people.

If and when the new building is finished Parramatta will have a gigantic white elephant that has zero possibility of drawing long-term audiences and covering costs. To achieve this excellent result the government will have irretrievably vandalised a major Australian museum and wiped out another precious piece of heritage in a city already disfigured by the concrete horrors of Westfield Shopping Centre and similar architectural eyesores.

I emailed the Premier and Mr. Lee to ask how this project was economically justified, but neither has chosen to reply.

Meanwhile Anne Maria Nicholson tells me that, in the wake of the coronovirus, the Manly Council is seeking to withdraw $1.7 million set aside for artworks on the new coastal walk between Manly and Palm Beach. This follows the usual pattern whereby the arts are seen as the softest of cuts, regardless of those who draw an income from the sector, or the broader benefits to the community.

David Handley should take a look at this Council’s priorities next time he gets an overture to relocate Sculpture By the Sea to Manly.

The coup de grace ths week is the news that BHP is just about to blow up at least 40 Aboriginal heritage sites in the Pilbara, being apparently oblivious to the worldwide media storm that followed Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge site only three weeks ago. For a while it looked as if the big mining companis were trying to clean up their act and show us they care about environmental and cultural preservation, but it seems we’re back to the good ole days of capitalism rampant. This, by the way, is one of the few areas in which we have bipartisan agreement in Australian politics, as the WA Labor government is just as eager as its Coalition predecessor to put the interests of mining companies over those of the local inhabitants whose ancestors have lived with these sites for many thousands of years. This is not just another PC controversy, as the archaeology of these places allows insights into some of our earliest views of humankind.

This week’s art column is a bit of a collage, marking the reopening of Sydney’s commercial galleries. On one day I visited eight venues and dutifully recorded what I found. Although the column is not entirely free of value judgements it doesn’t grapple with anything very deeply. In the weeks to come I’ll revert to a more discriminating approach.

The movie column discusses another on-line documentary, a genre that seems to be consistently better than the on-line feature films I’ve been watching. Honeyland tells the story of a Macedonian peasant who makes her living from gathering wild honey. That’s pretty much it, but the film has proved amazingly popular, being the first-ever documentary to be nominated for two Academy Awards, and winning praise from audiences around the world. It’s a film that makes us keenly aware of the privileged lives we lead, but also of what we are missing.

As an extra I’ve added a small piece about Christo, who died last week. It’s not a full obituary, just a few remarks about his legacy in Australia, where his 1969 wrapping of Little Bay had a lasting impact.