Newsletter 520

Published December 4, 2023
Lisa Havilah tries out for the role of Napoleon

Looking at NSW Minister John Graham’s many titles, I can’t help wondering if he has confused his role as Minister for the Arts with that of Minister for Music and for the Night-time Economy. On the very same day I received a series of alarming emails about the future of the Powerhouse Museum – which Labor had sworn to protect as an election promise, I get an ecstatic announcement about a collaboration between Powerhouse Parramatta and Blacktown Arts Centre. In the press release we find the Minister saying: “Powerhouse Parramatta will set a new international benchmark for what contemporary museums can be for their communities…”

What is this grand vision that’s going to set a new international benchmark? A Hip Hop festival, to be hosted by Powerhouse Parramatta; a political poster archive, and a program about “cultural weaving practices” in the western suburbs.

Each of these inititatives has a certain cultural value, but they are the kind of things that would – or should be – no more than sidelines for a well functioning museum. Making them the subject of a hyperbolic announcement suggests that the Powerhouse is eager to claim every project as a triumph, to give the impression of doing things that are positive, popular, incusive and non-elitist. It is a smokescreen for the infinitely more serious plan to close the museum for at least three years, while everything it stands for is trashed beyond recognition.

A Hip Hop festival is not my idea of a good time, but one can see how the government might be seduced by the idea of appealing to the mythical ‘young demographic’. At best, this bit of “night-time economy” shouldn’t detract from the actual business of the museum. Instead, such events are shaping as replacements for exhibitions based on science and technology, the applied arts and social history – for which the Powerhouse is known.

The unwanted ‘Powerhouse Parramatta’ has had so much removed from the plan that it no longer fits international museum standards (quite aside from being located in a floodpain), so why not simply cut it loose from Powerhouse Ultimo? The former could be a venue for Hip Hop and similar events, the latter could remain an actual museum. While they’re at it, they might like to make CEO Lisa Havilah the boss of whatever they choose to call Parramatta and hire someone for Ultimo who understands what a museum is and how it works.

I was recently sent a link to a speech Lisa made in Adelaide in 2021, where she outlined her ideas about cultural institutions. The title was revealing enough: “Unmaking the Institution”.

She explained her methods with breathtaking candour.

“I didn’t ask the audience what they want. I ignored the data….”

“In every instance – even when I wasn’t going to – I always asked ‘How can I help?’” (my italics)

“…never explaining or trying to educate.”

And perhaps, best of all: “…not responding until it no longer matters and that’s a very special bureaucratic strategy.”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. It was like Robespierre making a speech telling an audience why the Terror was such good policy, or Stalin patiently explaining the way to run a totalitarian state – all for the ultimate benefit of “the community”.

And what are we to make of a Museum CEO who says: “we will not be a museum that bows down to the monuments of the 20th century”?  What kind of museum brazenly scorns the monuments of the past? Can such an institution be trusted to care for the rare and precious items in its collection? As it is, significant reports of damage inflicted on items through the indecent haste with which they were bundled into storage, or allowed to be vandalised during rave parties, have been swept under the carpet by the government, and simply denied by the CEO.

The care of the collection is the very first duty of a director and her curators. Neglect, let alone denials that are hotly disputed by those at the coal face, should be capital offences.

The bit about “not responding until it no longer matters” is precisely what we see at present, as the loud and persistent questions raised by the friends of the Museum, and by MPs such as Robert Borsak, are ignored or downplayed. Labor, which promised to lift the veil of secrecy imposed by the Coalition, is now asking people to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements!  No plans for the “renewal” of Ultimo have been made public or put up for discussion and debate.

Leo Schofield’s 1,001 remarkable Objects, which absorbed two years and $4 million, is set to close after only four months, on 31 December, in the midst of the holiday tourist season. It is the only show that has drawn a crowd to the PHM in recent years, as overall attendances have plummeted to levels not seen since the 1960s.

The plan is to close PHM Ultimo for at least three years, which should provide adequate opportunities to force out experienced staff and replace them with like-minded cronies. It will also save money that can be channelled into off-setting cost overruns on Parramatta.

To quote Lisa Havilah’s speech once more: “The rule is to never stop moving the project forward.”

John Graham seems to have bought this line completely. The critics of the “renewal”, who have an abundance of expertise and experience, have been dutifully snubbed in favour of the glorious “vision” of a CEO who has killed attendances, treated the collection with contempt, and promoted an untested, ideologically-driven program that has every possibility of creating three bloated venues in Ultimo, Parramatta and Castle Hill, that are ruinous to maintain and of no special interest to the public. It’s a recipe for pouring millions of dollars down the drain in the pursuit of a fantasy of what a “radical” new museum should be.

The trouble is, museums by their very nature are conservative institutions that allow a window onto the past. The idea of a community-driven events centre is not a “radical” blueprint for the museum of the future, it is not a museum at all.

Much of the Adelaide talk focussed on what a dynamic program there would be in Parramatta. The only problem is that the cuts and changes to the structure have left a shell with a ridiculously high-ceilinged exhibition space, apartments and dormitories, food and beverage facilities… but serious limitations in what the institution will be able to borrow and exhibit.

I can do no better than to quote former PHM curator, Kylie Winkworth: “No one has questioned why a project that was supposed to be a museum with a fully tanked underground car park turned into a commercially focussed entertainment and convention centre, with not a single dedicated exhibition space, no back of house space for collection or exhibition handling facilities, no separate loading dock for exhibitions and collections and not even one parking space for service and delivery vehicles.”

I could go on and on, as I’ve barely scraped the surface of this tragic saga. The single most alarming fact is that Minister Graham has said one thing and done the very opposite. He has bought into the destructive fantasy inaugurated by his predecessors and chosen to support a CEO who has boldly admitted her intention is to “unmake” the institution. He has allowed the culture of secrecy to fester and left the same shadowy people in place.

And what is the NSW Arts Advisory Panel saying about it all? I went to a launch of this body earlier this year, and now it seems as if it is nothing but a rubber stamp for whatever grubby things the government wants to do. The Libs use highly paid consultancy firms while Labor puts together grass-roots committees. The result is exactly the same. The only party that has acted honourably and consistently in this affair is the  Shooters, Fishers and Farmers! It is, perhaps, a lesson in how easily corrupted the big parties are when money and power is involved. It also exposes the shallow populism that pretends everything is for “communities”, although – as Lisa Havilah recommends, it’s better not to ask the audience what they want or look at the data. They might, for instance, prefer to queue up to see Ramses the Great at the Australian Museum. It’s obviously best, in the view of the PHM management and the government, to protect people from what they want.

Enough. The art column this week travels to Orange, for John R. Walker’s excellent mid-career survey. No complaints about the work, or the enterprising gallery that puts on such shows.

The movie being reviewed is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which was always destined to be controversial, but simply has to be seen. I’ve read a good deal about Napoleon and can spot all the things that are omitted from this account, but it remains a gripping piece of cinema. Unlike Lisa Havilah, Ridley Scott has no issue with “monuments”. Handled properly there is no greater spectacle than history. We disrespect it at our peril. With the clock ticking on the Powerhouse, it’s time to man the barricades again.