Last year international art consultant Adrian Ellis, an expert in new construction, wrote in the London-based publication The Art Newspaper about the trend away from the grandiose museum expansion plans of previous decades. He gave this warning: “The shoals and whirlpools of capital projects still suck careless museums in. The most common causes of a dunking – and sometimes a drowning – are neglect of the invariably adverse impact that an expansion has on the relationship of income to expenditure, on cash flow, and on the strength of the balance sheet… the potential of the expansion goes unrealised because the resources are not available to program it effectively.”

Does this apply to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and its crudely ambitious expansion plan known as Sydney Modern? You bet it does.

In last month’s NSW Budget the Art Gallery finally secured $244 million in public money towards construction costs.

End of problem? More like the beginning.

True, the pharaonic scale of the project has been reduced to be somewhat more realistic. The grand plaza linking the old building and the new, which clashed spectacularly with the existing neo-classical façade, has been dropped altogether, bringing the estimated cost down from $450 million to $380 million and leaving only $136 million to come from the fund-raising campaign.

So construction is now on the cards. But how do you pay for the huge increase in running costs?

Compared to other state galleries, the AGNSW is already seriously under-funded. In financial year 2015-2016 the NSW government contributed $23.9 million of its $45.7 million operating costs. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the most commercially successful state gallery, received $46,246 million in state funding of its $83,222 million operating costs. 

The options for ongoing funding

The new building at the AGNSW (artist’s impression above) will obviously require more staff and continuous maintenance. Operating costs will at least double. The Art Gallery managers have put a business case to the Coalition government, and we’re told that the Department of Premier and Cabinet has done financial modelling and decided it could work. But there are only so many ways in which these costs can be met:

  • A doubling– at least– of state government recurrent funding. The best but least likely option, given the meanness of successive governments towards the arts. They’re going in the opposite direction. The Berejiklian government has already increased the “efficiency dividend” (= spending cut) for the coming year from 1.5% to 2%. This means a further squeeze on an institution which has already lost too many staff and outsourced key functions in areas including security, IT, gallery technicians and maintenance. Instead resources have gone into developing a highly-paid, top-heavy bureaucracy – including senior executives with no art training – to pursue the expansion plan.
  • Self-funding through commercial activities. It’s long been the case that public cultural institutions have to generate commercial revenue, but no matter how much income they raise from ticketed exhibitions, shops, cafes and venue hire, none has ever achieved self-funding. If Melbourne’s hugely popular NGV, with twice the number of visitors, hasn’t got there, how can the AGNSW? In financial year 2015-2016 the NGV’s commercial revenue was more than $10 million up on the previous year, but its operating costs were also up, by more than $16 million. The only way Sydney Modern could pay for itself would be by operating as a full-time corporate function venue rather than an art gallery. Is former Prime Minister Paul Keating right that Sydney Modern would be “a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery”?
  • User pays – bringing back entrance fees, higher charges for schools. This would be entirely against the ethos of the public gallery and its founding mission statement. Entrance fees were abolished and the old turnstiles were removed by Neville Wran’s government in 1979. Edmund Capon was appointed director at that time and was adamant throughout his 33 years in charge that the building would remain open to the public free of charge. Volunteers, members and other supporters flocked to the institution for that reason. The first breach in that ethos has been the recent introduction of charges for school groups – something no other state gallery has brought in. The user-pays option is a sure way to alienate the core audience.
  • Privatise the whole place. Sounds far-fetched? It’s the direction in which NSW governments have been moving. Think about its plans for The Rocks, the Powerhouse Museum, the GPO in Martin Place, Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street and other historic sites which developers are wetting their lips over.

Culture in the age of the asset sale

The keynote policy of NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Coalition government of 2014 to 2017, in which his successor Gladys Berejiklian was Treasurer, was the Great Asset Sell-off. And not just of the electricity distribution network, which has brought in the windfall billions for infrastructure. In the sale bonanza, public assets are viewed as disposable real estate rather than as instruments for the public good.

Two key examples:

The Powerhouse Museum. When the Baird government decided, in a knee-jerk response to the powerful Western Sydney lobby, to move the Powerhouse out to Parramatta, it viewed the change as a simple real estate transaction. Sell the Ultimo site to pay for the new museum. No thought was given to the priceless collection, until seasoned professionals came forward to the NSW Parliament’s Upper House inquiry, due to report next month, to demonstrate that the cost of moving the collection would be many times greater than the sale of Ultimo could possibly bring in. (For more on this see the Powerhouse Museum Alliance website.

Sydney’s art schools. For more than a year, the three main tertiary art schools have been under pressure to merge – a move coming from the NSW government. Next year, with the compliance of University of Sydney management, the Sydney College of the Arts will be evicted from its government-owned Callan Park home and relocated to the crowded main campus. On the other side of town, the National Art School has fended off pressure to merge with the University of NSW’s Art and Design school, but management of its home in the historic Darlinghurst Gaol buildings has already been transferred, ominously, from the Department of Education to Property NSW as a real estate asset.

National Art School, Darlinghurst

Four or five years down the track, in an atmosphere of financial uncertainty, other cultural institutions could all too easily go the same way. A future NSW government could find that in bowing to another powerful lobby and granting funds for Sydney Modern, it has built an “asset” it can only fund by a sell-off.

It’s time to reassert what public museums, galleries and libraries are for. They are for the enrichment of the whole of society. Many of us visit them for a particular ticketed exhibition, and the exhibition program is certainly a vital part of their work. But their core purpose remains the development of collections to which everyone should have access, regardless of income or background. Collections are public assets – but not assets for sale.

How to restore public confidence

At the AGNSW there is a long way to go to restore public confidence in the institution and its expansion plan. The announcement of the $244 million funding was not greeted with the rapture management no doubt hoped for. Letters to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald have been in their majority sceptical. The Foundation and Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens have expressed their extreme disappointment about the government decision, given that 57% of the proposed site belongs to the Gardens. My own inbox is full of expressions of concern for the future, many of them from the Art Gallery Society’s own members.

So what can be done?

  • The AGNSW should immediately publish its business plan for Sydney Modern and embark on the widest consultation about how it can be realised.
  • Government and AGNSW management should jointly pledge that entrance fees will never be re-imposed.
  • The AGNSW should end all charges for public programs for schools.
  • Now that public funding for the building has been promised, it’s time to end the cult of secrecy that has surrounded the project until now. A good step in rebuilding confidence would be to publish the Memorandum of Understanding between the Gallery and its membership organisation, the Art Gallery Society. At the Society’s AGM in April, members were told that a MoU had been signed, but had to remain secret. It’s ludicrous, in a public institution, that no one is allowed to know what the new role of its major support organisation is to be.

If we can’t get transparency, then it may be time to review the ways in which boards and management are appointed in the arts in NSW. Cultural institutions belong to the public, not to the state’s secretive deal-makers.