Newsletter 507

Published September 4, 2023
Party around the flying boat at the Powerhouse

Apologies for the lateness of this week’s posting. I’ve just got off a plane from Europe where I’ve been in and out of artists’ studios in Paris, Basel and Berlin, squeezing in as many museum exhibitions as possible. Sounds great, huh? Well yes, but there’s always a pay-off, mainly in the form of a long line of writing obligations, which are already clustering in my head, along with the jet lag.

I’d anticipated writing something about Europe, but to my great surprise, the first news item I encountered upon arriving at Sydney Airport, was that the NSW government had finally bitten the bullet and killed off the proposed $500 million vandalism of the Powerhouse Museum’s Ultimo site. As this has been a hobby horse for years, I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment.

First of all, this is great news. Secondly, the PHM has been “saved” before, and that only led to further duplicity and disaster. This new announcement is a test of the Labor government’s mettle, although it would be impossible for them to match the extraordinary hypocrisy and double-dealing of the previous regime. When the Don and Dom show announced the PHM was “saved”, they were already lining up the next wave of destruction. Labor Arts Minister, John Graham, has proceeded with greater slowness and caution than many would have liked, and has been subject to some severe questioning in the House from Robert Borsak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, but the cancelling of the $500 Ultimo makeover is a major step in the right direction.

I know the official title is now “Powerhouse”, but I persist in thinking of the place as a museum. If Labor wants to confirm its commitment to the Powerhouse-as-museum, it must require the word to be restored to the title. The very fact that the current administration would spend $1.5 million rebranding the organisation shows that nomenclature is extremely important. Take away the word “museum” and you remove the essential raison d’être of the institution.

Labor is right to insist that the $250 million they are saving can be reinvested in schools and hospitals. Under the Coalition these essential services were allowed to decay while vanity projects such as the PHM debacle absorbed outrageous sums of money. The final result would have been of benefit only to property developers. Indeed, it’s impossible to see how this vanglorious three-venue scheme would have ever been anything but a permanent drain on the public purse. The whole business was a pot-pourri of extravagance, waste and corruption, at the expense of ordinary citizens who had to suffer substandard conditions in hospitals and schools. It may sound like political rhetoric to say how the money is being redirected, but the waste was only too real.

For the moment there are two responses to the announcement that are worthy of attention. Firstly, Lisa Havilah, the CEO of the PHM operation, who has personally driven the emptying out of collection storage, with much reported damage to items  – which she has publically denied – says she “welcomes” the new plans. This is, I suppose, an inevitable response. One can’t speak out against one’s employer when they’ve made a big decision – not if you want to keep your $500 k+ job.

Nevertheless, the hypocrisy is staggering. Under Havilah, the collection has been treated with cavalier disrespect, the standout piece of evidence being the dinners and rave parties held in the main exhibition gallery where important items such as the Catalina flying boat have been damaged. She was also happy to close the museum for three years while the rebuild was underway, moving the curators to rented offices in Parramatta and Castle Hill, where they could “hot desk”, while wondering what to do with themselves all day. Finally there is the questionable obsession with “residencies” and “food and beverage” facilities. All of this is secondary – if not simply anathema – to the historical mission of the museum.

It’s also worth noting that under current leadership, attendances have fallen to their lowest level since the 1960s. The only way Lisa could honestly “welcome” the new announcement is if she suddenly realised the depth of the hole she has been digging.

As for the Coalition response, the Opposition spokesman for the Arts, Kevin Anderson, said: “This is a huge blow for the arts sector who will now have to settle for less.”  This is a statement that should make anyone choke on their cornflakes when reading the morning paper. Apparently no-one has infomed Mr. Anderson that the arts sector has opposed these schemes from Day One; has submitted countless petitions, objections, analyses and expert opinions… which were comprehensively ignored by the Coalition, who failed to produce a workable business plan and kept all their deliberations secret from the public.

Mr Anderson laments the loss of “30 per cent more exhibition space”, but critics of the scheme will tell you it was set to deliver 50 per cent less exhibition space. Instead, there would have been big increase in the space devoted to functions, parties, etc. As we’ve already seen with Sydney Modern, it has become a vice – and a profound abrogation of cultural responsibilities – to trade exhibitions for functions, turning museums into party venues.

The labor announcement is indisputably good news, but there’s still a great deal that has to be done to sort out the white elephant that is being constructed in Parramatta; the fate of the Harwood Building, which is crucial to the PHM’s operations in Ultimo, and – most importantly of all – the kind of adminstration the PHM requires, “going forward”, as the cliché has it.

Are we expected to believe that those who have done so much to destroy the fabric and function of the museum are going to suddenly become responsible guardians of the collection? So much damage has already been done, so many millions squandered, all we are seeing at present is a pause in proceedings. If the PHM is to be revived, it requires more than a patched-up mess of half-baked ideas from the people who hastened to push through as much of their destructive program as possible while Labor hesitated to act. The tactic didn’t work, but it will cost enormous sums of money to fix, and probably result in more damage to the collection. Are we to believe that the people who have shown nothing but contempt for the collection and for the role of the museum will now turn around and become its champions? If a vote of no confidence were taken, from the public and within the institution, it’s easy to predict the results.

I’m holding over the art column this week to try and get the sequence back in order, but am aiming to write a preview of Sydney Contemporary to coincide with the main days of the fair next weekend.

The movie being reviewed is Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story, a feature-length documentary on the famous/notorious Australian record boss and promoter. For many viewers, self included, the film offers a nostalgic overview of the local popular music industry during a period some call its “golden age”. Gudinski played a disproportionately large role in the live music scene, but I’m not convinced museum directors should be following his example today.