Newsletter 525

Published January 22, 2024
Another educational group enjoys their visit to the PHM

Lots of concerned feedback for last week’s blast on the Powerhouse Museum, which is approaching doomsday on 4 February, when the government intends to close the Ultimo building for at least three years. I know I previously said “the end of February” but that was a wishful error. The good news is that the National Gallery of Australia reassures me there is no plan to shutter the building while repairs and renovations are underway. It would be nice to believe my Canberra information was all wrong and I was being too much of a Cassandra, but I’ll believe it when it’s happening.

As we’ve seen in NSW, the Minister, John Graham, and the Premier, have both strongly supported the idea of the PHM as a museum of science and technology, then allowed the current management to trash this vital strand. Ultimo has become a clubhouse for contemporary art and fashion, rave parties, all things Queer, Blak, etc. The Parramatta building, yet to open its doors, will not fulfil the most basic requirements of a world-class museum, and seems destined to be yet another function centre.

What is going on in our minds – or the minds of our civic masters – that we seem to believe all cultural facilities should primarily be places for parties and functions? It’s just as inane as those people who, when asked to identify their hobbies and pasttimes, say “shopping”, as if that were an end in itself.

There’s a constant lament about the state of education in Australia, but we’re allowing major cultural facilities to degenerate into party venues. In NSW, John Graham can’t distinguish between his role as Minister of the Arts and Minister for the Night-time Economy – as if the “night time economy” needed a ministry in its own right! Why not have a ministry for pubs and pop concerts?

The two tactics that have been used, with apparent success, by Lisa Havilah and her cronies at the PHM, are to maintain a stony silence while pushing forward with every short-sighted, vandalistic project they favour; and to pour money into events that are so PC they are assumed to be beyond criticism. Is anybody game to criticise the Queer show? The Blak protests against Australia Day? Even those who believe such things are not proper activities for the museum will be very unwilling to say so and risk the inevitable opprobrium.

Personally, I think we have to get over this moral cowardice and ask about the necessity of these events, how well they are realised, and what other things are being neglected to enable resources to be channelled in these directions? Finally, there’s the small matter of audiences and attendances. Leo Schofield’s collection show, 1,001 Remarkable Objects, has been a resounding success. Everything else over the past few years has been a flop, so it couldn’t be clearer what the public wants to see.  In this day and age, to deliberately ignore the public interest and accept the inevitable decline in attendances, is usually considered fatal for museum management.

Until now.

For many years public institutions all over the world have come under pressure from governments to raise a large part of their own revenue. When they fail to meet their stated targets, as with the Art Gallery of NSW last year, they may be penalised with a budget cut via the pernicious “efficiency dividend”.

How must the AGNSW folks feel when they see those figures that reveal on a dollar-cost-per-visitor basis they spent $42.01 last year while the PHM spent $99.34. This is more than twice as much as any museum in Australia.

Kylie Winkworth, who has come up with these figures also notes the PHM has experienced a 90% decline in self-generated revenue over the past five years. During that same period, education participation has declined by more than 50%, while other museums are bending over backwards to attract school groups to impress their political masters.

To sum up: the PHM under its current “visionary” leadership, has undergone a catastrophic drop in self-generated revenue, education participation and attendance numbers. It is costing the NSW government more than twice as much per visitor than any other cultural institution. There seems no end to the PHM’s drain on the public purse while its peers struggle to convince the government they need more funds merely to achieve a negative result. Quite simply, when the management of a museum shows such clear contempt for all the rules that others live by, and expects the taxpayer to provide unconditional support for a program that is clearly a failure, why is the NSW government so ready to play along? Why do they show any confidence whatsoever in a discredited regime that offers no defence of its policies and simply keeps pushing onward to new depths?

And another question: Why is the media so slack and silent about something that should be a front-page scandal? If they can’t get excited about Australia’s largest museum being gutted, one imagines they might see a monumental waste of public resources as inherently newsworthy.

I’d love to hear your answers to these conundrums. Better still, I’d love to hear the Premier’s answers.

Another project started under the previous NSW government and finished under the present one, is the renovation of Artspace in Woolloomooloo. At a mere $19.2 million, it’s a bargain, and very nicely done. The first exhibition at the revamped Artspace is Jonathan Jones’s untitled (Transcriptions of Country), which is the subject of this week’s review, along with the survey, Imants Tillers: The Mosman Years, at the Mosman Art Gallery.

Artspace is exactly the right venue for a project like Jones’s, that deals with all those political topics so prevalent in today’s museums. It’s not a crowd-puller, but a well-thought-out and precisely executed exhibition that will appeal to the more ‘progressive’ audience that frequents this Aussie Kunsthalle.

Imants Tillers’s show is a time capsule of those years he lived near Sirius Cove, like Roberts and Streeton, and came up with the canvasboard painting method he’s never relinquished. The good news is that the work still feels edgy after almost 40 years. I doubt that many of today’s avant-garde geniuses will generate this much interest in 2060.

The film review is another double header, putting Sean Durkin’s wrestling movie, The Iron Claw with Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, the story of Mrs. Elvis Presley. The Iron Claw wins this bout comprehensively – by being a genuinely involving story, whereas Priscilla leaves one feeling way too detached. I’m afraid this dreadful sense of detachment is our contemporary condition, whether we are pondering the life of the young Priscilla, or the fate of the Powerhouse Museum. I can’t say whether it’s a failure of passion or of the attention span – maybe a bit of both. It’s time we said au revoir to all this ennui.


Here, once more, is the Save the Powerhouse petition: