NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet declared in his first state budget (June 20) that NSW was “the envy of the Western world”.

Really? Not in the arts!

What Perrottet delivered was not a budget of facts and figures but spin. The 34-year-old son of a senior World Bank official, who only entered Parliament in 2015, he is busily laying the foundation to succeed Gladys Berejiklian as Premier.

He’s used the Money Tree and played Santa Claus in his ambitious bid.

His budget claim that $1.8 billion will be invested in “arts and cultural institutions” over the next four years does not stand up to scrutiny. The arts are lumped in with sport, parks and environment. Unpick the package and it is clear that the story is quite different. Of the total budget of $1.8 billion, $1 billion is from the sale of the precious NSW Land Registry Office and is earmarked for sports stadiums.

As for cultural institutions, they appear to be getting little new money apart from the $600m placed in a cultural infrastructure fund by Mike Baird’s government three years ago. Buried in the spin is the neglected fact that they will all be subject to further cuts to their operating budgets. From next year “efficiency dividends” (translation: spending cuts) will increase from 1.5% to 2%. That means more job losses, more outsourcing, and more pressure to commercialise.

Here are the specific budget allocations for the arts:

  • $244m over five years for the proposed Sydney Modern project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (artist’s impression pictured above). This is the final amount from the $600m cultural infrastructure fund in Baird’s 2014 budget. However, only $19m will be released in the first year and there is no commitment to ongoing funding for the Sydney Modern project – more on this below.
  • $190m for the Sydney Opera House renewal – that’s what’s left of the $202m originally committed under the same cultural infrastructure fund.
  • $187m for the Walsh Bay cultural precinct– again, $139m of this is an existing commitment, made two years ago. The redevelopment is stalled at present as the result of last week’s Court of Appeal ruling against the development application.
  • A $100m regional cultural fund for expenditure in regional and rural constituencies. But since there’s as yet no detail, it’s not clear whether this includes projects previously announced. Or how much of the total will be targeted at seats where the National Party majority looks shaky. No doubt we’ll know more nearer the election in March 2019.

Running down culture

As with hospitals and infrastructure, there’s a lot of recycling of previously announced plans here. And there are glaring omissions. There’s no money for the proposed expansion of the Australian Museum in College Street or for development of the State Library of NSW in Macquarie Street.

Most seriously, there’s nothing for the move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, first announced two years ago in a kneejerk response to the Western Sydney lobby’s well-founded complaint that the region was starved of cultural infrastructure. At that time the Baird government appeared to believe that sale of the Ultimo site would fund the move, but last year the ongoing NSW Upper House inquiry into museums and galleries heard irrefutable evidence from some of the state’s top museum professionals that the real cost would be many times that, possibly up to $2 billion.

Artist’s impression of the planned new Powerhouse museum at Parramatta – will it ever happen?

The budget papers contain an entire section devoted to Western Sydney – but there’s not a single reference to the Powerhouse project or to any cultural infrastructure whatsoever for the area. The West has been left in limbo – with a future announcement no doubt to come, predictably, before the next state election.

In recent years NSW governments, both Labor and Coalition, have developed a lethal modus operandi in dealing with the public cultural institutions for which they are responsible. Here’s a quick guide to how it works:

First, go with the Treasury view that the arts should increasingly be made to pay for themselves. Since 2009 that means imposing the notoriously misnamed “efficiency dividend”, with specific instructions to reduce staff and increase the focus on commercial operations. Rely on the compliance of museum and gallery boards whose members are appointed by government

Second, when any given lobby group becomes a problem, come up with a big announcement so grandiose that, with a bit of luck, you’ll never have to carry it out. When problems inevitably emerge, throw up your hands, put the whole thing on hold and hope that it will be left to the next government to handle.

Sydney Modern dilemma

Will the Art Gallery’s Sydney Modern extension go the same way? Many observers appear to think so.

Following the $244m announcement on June 13, The Sydney Morning Herald responded next day with wall-to-wall coverage, an enthusiastic editorial and a column by arts editor Nick Galvin admonishing us that “it would be churlish” not to welcome the project.

Well, the SMH must have a lot of churlish readers. In the following days letters to the editor and comments on the website were overwhelmingly critical. “Never mind the buildings,” read one comment, “will the art improve?” The decision to give so much money to the AGNSW was “a firm slap in the face to all of regional NSW,” according to another.

The letters expressed a concern that one powerful lobby group has won out over the rest of the state. In effect, there is no arts policy in Perrottet’s budget. Rather, it smacks of the old-fashioned NSW art of the deal.

Next time, we’ll look at where we go from here.

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