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Powerhouse 2019 with postscript. (All down hill since then…)

Published June 18, 2021
The Powerhouse Museum, or 'The last train out of Ultimo's almost gone...'

Dear Michael Daley,

As new leader of the Opposition in New South Wales you wasted no time in getting stuck into the Berejiklian government over its truly surreal proposal to knock down two sporting stadiums and rebuild them at a cost of roughly $2 billion to the tax-payer. It’s an excellent target, as neither the Premier nor the Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres, has been able to come up with a convincing rationale as to why it’s necessary to demolish a stadium that seats 45,000 people so as to accommodate 100,000, even though the usual attendance is about 16,000.

There was a bit of laughable, opportunistic banter about making new facilities for women’s sporting teams, but this would be like tearing down your house in order to renovate the bathroom. Then there was the pathetic threat from the National Rugby League, echoed by organs such as the Daily Telegraph, that unless we get a new stadium the grand final could go interstate. Quelle catastrophe! If the interstate teams finish top of the table why shouldn’t they get the grand final? Sport should be all about rewarding achievement not enshrining privilege.

The government’s sole remaining rallying cry seems to be: “Build it and they will come!” It is, incidentally, the same rationale being trumpeted for the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern extension: a plan that will double the size of the gallery at a time when ‘efficiency dividends’ are being increased. Yet experiences of museums around the world, including Melbourne’s Federation Square, suggests that after a few months of heightened activity attendances recede back to previous levels. Only operating costs are likely to double.

I mention this because it adds to this government’s portfolio of ultra-expensive, irresponsible policy decisions made in defiance of informed criticism. I expect that Sydney Modern will go ahead under Labor, even if it turns into a huge drain on the public purse. Politicians know they can’t be seen to oppose everything, but there is at least one more project that needs to be stopped in its tracks.

In the face of all the argy-bargy about the stadiums you’ve been rightly uncompromising, and it’s played out well in the opinion polls. That’s why I’m writing to ask you not to confine your opposition to the sports grounds, but to commit an incoming Labor government to abandon the Coalition’s lunatic plan of ‘moving’ the Powerhouse museum to Parramatta. In April your predecessor, Luke Foley, suggested that Labor was now opposing the plan, but this urgently needs to be confirmed.[1]This proposal is just as insensitive as the stadium idea, almost as expensive, and hugely unpopular. It’s obvious that to “move” the Powerhouse would be to destroy the Powerhouse.

An article in The Art Newspaper [2] noted that the proposed relocation would be the most expensive in history. It would also be the most inexplicable. What world city moves a major cultural asset out of the metropolitan area? It would be like London moving the Victoria and Albert Museum to Essex, or New York punting the Guggenheim to New Jersey.

The original idea behind the move was to provide cultural facilities for the city of Parramatta but the current proposal is for a science museum with a whizz-bang planetarium. Residents of Parramatta may feel they’ve been conned.

The government’s other bright idea is to squeeze the museum into a much smaller space that it will share with commercial offices. As a bonus the building will be constructed on a flood plane that a leading engineer has declared a danger to life.[3]

Meanwhile back in Ultimo the existing site will be sold to friendly developers, apart from a small segment earmarked for a new fashion museum and a lyric theatre.[4]This is a poor replacement for what we already have: namely a world-famous museum that combines the study of science and technology with that of the applied arts. The new plan would mean the unique nature of that museum would be forever lost, and a valuable part of Australia’s cutural heritage officially vandalised.[5]

The Powerhouse is already shedding staff and finding it difficult to hire replacements. Morale and programming is in ruins. Normal maintenence of the collection is being disrupted, and many donors are asking what is going to happen to objects they have gifted to the museum. Needless to say, the threat of relocation/demolition has made it impossible to raise money from public and corporate sources, or to expect anyone to donate further items.[6] One suspects the institution is being run down as a way of justifying whatever drastic overhauls are in the offing.

In the words of one of its own MPs, Matthew Mason-Cox, this government operates under “a perverse culture of secrecy” [7] leading one to suspect that the museum’s prospects are even worse than anticipated. It’s not exactly conicidental that the Ultimo site has just been re-valued upwards by some $220 million by the Auditor-General.[8] When land is no longer designated as a home for a museum or any kind of heritage building, it allows developers a freer hand.

One of those areas where the government has been most secretive is the fate of the collection. Will items be sold off to help finance the move? Will certain areas of the collection be axed? Nobody knows, except perhaps Arts Minister, Don Harwin and his mates. It’s hard to know how the current holdings could be accommodated under the proposed new arrangements. [9]

To put it simply: like the sporting stadiums – and many other perplexing decisions made by this government – there seems to be no economic, social or cultural argument to support the dismantling of the Powerhouse. The government has refused to listen to its critics, and has tried to keep its plans from public scrutiny.

Why would any responsible government spend $1.5 – 2 billion moving a museum 24 kilometres when there is no tangible benefit, and massive potential for harm? Even citizens of the western suburbs have spoken out against a proposal that will not satisfy local needs. As far as the Powerhouse is concerned, the move would be a disaster for attendance numbers, as most visitors to Sydney will not be making the trip to Parramatta. Neither, one suspects, will many Sydneysiders.

I could go on and on, Mr.Daley, plying you with arguments and statistics, recommending websites and critical articles, but the simple fact is: there are no convincing arguments in favour of the move, and an overwhelming body of opinion that the museum should stay exactly where it is.

This doesn’t mean Parramatta shouldn’t have the cultural facilities it needs, but what’s wrong with the commonsense proposal for a museum that hosts exhibitions from all the major Sydney venues, from the AGNSW to the Powerhouse, from the Australian Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art? If the AGNSW wasn’t so intent on colonising part of the Royal Botanic Gardens it might build Sydney Modern in Parramatta, thereby solving two problems.

The Berejiklian government is on the nose with the people of NSW for the contempt it has shown for their views and opinions. Too many projects have been rushed through in the face of public outrage. (Remember the fig trees cut down to make way for the ‘light’ rail?) Too many questions have remained unanswered. Too many projects hurried or bungled, resulting in massive cost blow-outs.

The Labor Party, which has plenty of ghosts to lay if it is to form government, needs to uphold principles of transparency and accountabilty that have been trashed by the Coalition. It needs to govern for all the people of NSW and to listen to their concerns. Mr. Daley, you’ve shown you can respond positively when we rose up against the sporting stadiums, now let’s see you save the Powerhouse.

 

POSTSCRIPT:

Shortly before this article went to print the NSW Opposition sent out a press release announcing precisely what I was asking for: a cast-iron commitment to preserving the Powerhouse Museum on its current site. There were also commitments for $500 millon to be spent on building a dedicated cultural institution in Parramatta, and $45 million for upgrades to the Powerhouse.

This sounds extremely positive but the Powerhouse Board immediately complained that $45 million wasn’t enough for a comprehensive fix. Are they suggesting it would be better to spend at least $1.5 billion attempting to move the entire shebang? An incoming Labor government might begin by looking at the scandalous degree to which the Coalition has allowed the Powerhouse to become run down to help with the pretence that it’s “not fit for purpose”. Labor might also consider a clean-out of the Board, which includes suspiciously political appointments such as David Borger, former Labor MP and now executive director of the Western Sydney Business Chamber, one of the most outspoken supporters of the move.

Let’s think of the many possibilities for museums that remain to be considered. There is still no museum dedicated to indigenous life and culture. There is no museum devoted to the culture of the Middle East – a heterogenous migrant group that dominates the western suburbs. There is no museum for Outsider Art. Each of these projects would come with social and community benefits, building wedges against xenophobia and stigma.

Neither should the preservation of the Powerhouse preclude the opportunity to build museums devoted to design, science or fashion. Any of these projects could be pursued without having to dismantle an existing institution or surrender more of Sydney’s public space to private developers. From the ruins of one shameful episode in the city’s cultural life we need to develop a new, positive focus.

 

[1] Alexandra Smith, ‘Foley reveals Powerhouse policy as government is left red-faced’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April, 2013

[2] Tim Stone, ‘$890 million Sydney museum move could be the most expensive gallery relocation in history’, The Art Newspaper, 303 July/August, 2018

[3] Michaela Boland, ‘Powerhouse Museum move to Parramatta floodplain is ‘crazy’ and ‘risks loss of life’, flood expert warns.’, ABC News online, 12 April, 2018

[4] NSW Government to Open Up Ultimo Powerhouse Site to Developers’, The Urban Developer, 1 May, 2018

[5]  Kylie Winkworth: ‘What is unfolding in the divestment and demolition of the PHM is a slow burn museum bonfire. This is no less than the destruction of a 135 year old museum, Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences. Museum people around the world are mourning the destruction of Brazil’s National Museum by fire and government neglect. They are also looking on with incredulity at the NSW government’s work to demolish the PHM, to abandon its mission as a museum of applied arts and sciences, to evict the museum from its landmark site and its home since 1893, and move it to a less accessible location with demonstrably inferior facilities. How is this happening in a civilised society we are asked by museum colleagues across the country and overseas? I wish I had an answer.” Museum Inquiry Speaking Notes, 12 September, 2018

 

[6] From private conversations with staff, who prefer to remain unnamed.

[7] Alexandra Smith, ‘Perverse culture of secrecy’: Liberal MP slams Powerhouse decision’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April, 2018

[8] Carrie Fellner, ‘Power surge: price of Ultimo site soars ‘$220m’ ahead of museum move’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December, 2018

 

[9] Kylie Winkworth, “You don’t need to be a real estate genius to see the rip-off in swapping an expansive accessible 2.6 hectare city site, fully owned by the museum, for a smaller museum on a flood-prone riverbank at the base of a 50-storey apartment block.”, ‘Museum demolition: these are two words that don’t belong together,’  Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May, 2018

 

PPS:  It’s now history that Michael Daley blew his early popularity with some ill-conceived, racially inflammatory comments that rapidly went viral. The Coalition were comfortably re-elected, and have taken this as a mandate to continue the assault on the Powerhouse Museum.

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Published in Artist profile 46, 2019