Newsletter 502

Published July 31, 2023
Oppenheimer is astonished to hear of the Powerhouse's new food & beverage initiative

There is a suggestion this week that the dreadful, wasteful, vandalistic, unpopular makeover of  Powerhouse Ultimo – previously known as the Powerhouse Museum –  is finally being rethought. Considering that these plans were going to cost the new Labor government more than $500 million, and deliver an institution with half as much exhibition space, in the teeth of massive community opposition, one wonders why it took so long to put the brakes on.

I know there are contracts involved, plus all the pressure brought to bear from museum management and bureaucracy, but as Linda Morris’s Herald article of last week pointed out, the Treasurer has just announced a mere $7 billion in cost pressures weighing on the government. How could they even consider the extravagant plan inherited from the Coalition? It’s not just a luxury, it’s a blueprint that would ensure the Powerhouse remained a monumental drain on the budget for time immemorial.

Obviously the museum requires repairs and renovations, but the radical schemes proposed went far beyond what was necessary. No less alarming than the building issues is the Powerhouse’s change of direction, and the millions that have been spent clearing items out of storage in preparation for a rebuild that probably won’t happen. This was a blatant attempt to force the new government into endorsing the existing scheme – “We can’t back down now! We’ve spent millions moving the collection! It’ll cost millions to put it all back!”

This is pretty accurate. It will cost millions to return everything that was moved with indecent haste, endangering rare and fragile items for the sake of a political agenda. There needs to be a thorough stocktake of the collection, and an independent report on whatever damage has occurred. In fact, there should be an independent inquiry into the entire Powerhouse debacle, which was conducted under a cloak of secrecy, defying expert opinion, public concern, and commonsense. There is no cultural or touristic logic to the plan. It only makes sense as a land grab. Those responsible need to be held accountable, whether they are currently employed on the project, or have already beaten a retreat.

It’s reassuring to learn that the scheme to send the curators to Castle Hill and Parramatta, where they would sit around in rented offices, ‘hot-desking’ for the next three years while building work proceeded, has been stopped – or at least paused. Had this gone ahead, it would have resulted in mass resignations, emptying the Powerhouse of corporate knowledge and expertise. New, young, malleable replacements would have been brought in to fill the gaps, and “Hey presto! Goodbye museum, hello contemporary art and fashion hub.”

Whatever renovation plans are ultimately pursued, there needs to be a renewed commitment to the Powerhouse as a museum, and to the “applied arts and sciences”, not simply fashion. Another email that arrived this week, described the brilliant new “food and beverage” intitative at Powerhouse Parramatta. In the words of CEO, Lisa Havilah: “This incredible opportunity includes retail food and beverage, Powerhouse produced events and programs, commercial hire and catering opportunities. It also includes hospitality catering services to a residential program which includes 30 short-term stay apartments..”

If we needed further convincing that the Parramatta edifice is not, and never will be, a museum, here is the admission that it’s all food and beverage and accommodation. What an innovation! What a tremendous cultural facility for the people of Parramatta, who will have an alternative to the Westfield food and beverage outlets. Yes, yes, we know they asked for a cultural centre, but surely a food court and some cheap apartments should keep them quiet.

What great times these are for caterers. With Sydney Modern acting as a overgrown function centre and the Powerhouse joining in, it won’t be long before all the city’s museums and galleries have abandoned the costly business of exhibitions in favour of non-stop dinners and parties. I know this is Sydney’s reputation anyway, but it’s a shame when we strive to exceed expectations.

This week’s art column looks at In the Arms of Unconsciousness: Women, Feminism and the Surreal at the Hazelhurst Arts Centre. Despite the rather peculiar title, which makes it sounds as if the show will put you to sleep, this is a enterprising event that brings together work by 22 artists with surrealist predilections. The link with feminism sounds good, although it isn’t established with any err… scientific thoroughness. Reservations aside, this is the kind of exhibition that puts the laziness of the major venues to shame. One hopes the food and beverage is up to scratch.

The movie being reviewed is – quelle surprise! – Oppenheimer, which I’m discussing without a word about the Barbie film. It says something about us, about our desperate need to reduce everything to entertainment, that these two utterly different movies are being yoked together as a lifestyle experience. I hope I’ll be excused if I suggest the Oppenheimer movie is a slightly more serious proposition. Nevertheless, when the next Academy Awards roll around, expect Barbie to be be the big winner.