Newsletter 499

Published July 10, 2023
Here's the team that will decide arts policy in NSW

There must be a lot of people turning up at Sydney Modern in the evenings for functions because during my day-time visits there is hardly anybody around. Why would they bother when they’ve already taken a look at the new building and there are no exhibitions to see? Sydney’s lackadaisical attitude towards exhibitions was the subject of a piece by Elizabeth Fortescue in last week’s Australian Financial Review, pointing out the glaring problems with the AGNSW’s do-nothing strategy.

The next big plan is to host a gig for pop star, Solange, in the Tank basement gallery. This should help swell the attendance stats nicely, but it’s got nothing to do with the core business of an art museum. The AGNSW seems to be suffering from a self-made identity crisis, wanting to do everything but exhibitions. That tired-but-evergreen phrase, ‘recipe for disaster’ springs to mind.

This week’s visit to Sydney Modern was for the launch of a NSW Government discussion paper, A New Look at Culture, presented as the first step towards a dedicated Arts policy. For me it was a first look at Arts Minister, John Graham, who seems the serious, committed type. It’s certainly a change from the flamboyant Don Harwin, who had his good points and his bad ones. If Don was an occasionally benevolent autocrat, Graham is a technocrat who believes in widespread community consulation in the formulation of policy. There’s a lot of talk about the “creative industries”, as the all-pupose economic justification for activities that should be justified solely because they are good for the soul. It helps to quieten the philistines when there is a dollars & cents argument involved.

This is typical Labor Party procedure. It comes across as inclusive and responsible, but there is always the potential for things getting bogged down in committees, consultations, and exaggerated regards for every sensitivity, while budgetary considerations still determine major outcomes.

The press conference at Sydney Modern introduced us to a new Ministerial Advisory Panel, chaired by Opera House CEO, Louise Herron. It’s a fairly solid, uncontroversial group that will be touring NSW canvassing public opinion, and receiving written submissions from all and sundry. If you want to contribute, this is the link:

Even though I’m naturally cynical about committees, I’d urge everyone to make a submission, as there are no grounds to complain if one declines to participate in the process. My own priorities are as follows:

Firstly, the government must take steps to properly fund and support regional galleries. These play a vital role in raising awareness of cultural matters in rural areas, and are engines for community building. Besides, they are great value-for-money, as they make a few thousand dollars go a lot further than will any of their city counterparts. In recent times a lot of money has been directed to the Sydney suburbs, for no better reason than the attempt to buy votes. While the suburbs shouldn’t be neglected there needs to be a more equitable rebalancing of spending.

The other major issue for the NSW government must be the ongoing disaster that is the Powerhouse Museum. With attendances at their lowest ebb snce the 1960s; a $500 million remake underway that will only reduce exhibition space and visitor numbers; an expensive white elephant being raised in Parramatta; a plan for three years of shutdown, and a final bill that will nudge $2 billion, what’s there to like? This is a catastrophe generated from scratch by the previous government, most likely as a land grab, that took no account of the museum, its heritage, or public and expert opinion. It was pushed through in the most ruthless and unethical fashion, and now Labor is left to deal with the mess. Decisive action is required, not further long drawn-out consultation, as there is no longer any leeway for delay. The current development needs to be frozen, and serious consideration given to the views of the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, the group that best reflects the interests of the institution and the community.

One good point the Minister made was that the government would concentrate on supporting established arts events and organisations rather than throwing money at start-ups. This seems like simple common sense, in stark contrast to the Australia Council’s dumping of existing clients and backing of untried new ones when it was on the wrong end of a funding cut from the Morrison government. It takes time and money to build audiences, and perserverance – rather than experiment – should be rewarded.

Finally, I would suggest the government has a serious talk to entities such as the AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Destination NSW, and ask them to please show a bit more initiative with major exhbitions. Sydney – Australia’s biggest city and tourist drawcard – is lagging well behind Melbourne, but also compares poorly to Adelaide and Brisbane in many departments. What’s the problem? Are our cultural managers terminally distracted or just bone idle? It’s time to stop resting on withered laurels and get to work. And that means exhibitions, not pop concerts.

I know this is becoming tedious, but I’ve been kept in the dark again about this week’s art column, which looks at Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Nothing turned up on the SMH website where the Bonnard piece has yet to make its appearance. My inquiries went unanswered, meaning I had to wait until Saturday morning to check the newspaper. The piece has indeed been printed. If it’s not on-line this is presumaby because print and on-line have their own priorities. If there has aready been a preview or puff piece, it seems the on-line editors see this as no different from a review. You already know my thoughts on this. I’m publishing the AGSA piece straight away, as chances are it may never appear in the SMH/Age website.

It’s a slow week at the movies again, so I’ve reviewed two smallish features: Reality and Driving Madeleine. The former is an unusual concoction, its entire script drawn from the transcript of an FBI home search. If I were feeling sceptical, I would say this made the writing task much easier for director, Tina Satter, who has also got a play out of the same material, but one has to view Reality as a kind of political intervention rather than a dramatic masterpiece.

Driving Madeleine is a more attractive proposition, being the simple tale of a Parisian taxi driver, who takes an extended journey across the city with a 92-year-old fare who tells him the unexpectedly dramatic story of her life. It’s a well-written tale that made me conscious of the deficiencies of so many movies I’ve been seeing lately, where the dialogue meanders and the continuity seems to go astray. By contrast, Driving Madeleine is a compact, skillful production that will appeal to a very broad audience – an ambition that our NSW cultural institutions seem to have abandoned.