Criticism grows over Gallery expansion plan

A fresh obstacle is confronting plans to spend $344 million to build the grandiose Sydney Modern gallery near the current site of the historic Art Gallery of NSW.

A distinguished group of architects, environmentalists and arts professionals is calling for a thorough review and proper consultation before the much-criticised Sydney Modern Project is allowed to go ahead. Their comprehensive and meticulously researched report focuses on the location and environmental impact of the building and the secrecy surrounding its planning. It should stop even the most enthusiastic Sydney Modernist in his/her tracks and delay any development application (DA).

The briefing paper has been drawn up by three experienced and highly regarded people: Roslyn Andrews, former member of the Royal Botanic Garden and Domain Trust and former chair of the Australian Horticulture and Landscape Foundation; Gillian Appleton, another former member of the RBG and Domain Trust and former chair of the NSW Arts Advisory Council; and Bruce Donald AM, former chair Environmental Defenders Office and former Australian Heritage Commissioner.

The major issues they outline are:

  • The loss of RBG and Domain land. “Trust lands are expressly mandated for open space and conservation purposes; any development on its land must directly or indirectly assist in attaining the objects of the Trust set out in its Act.”
  • The site. “Minimal detail is publicly available about the selected site’s potential impact on district views, traffic, parking, access and visitor amenity… there appears to have been no analysis, or canvassing of public opinion, of suggestions for alternative sites.”
  • Lack of consultation. “Where any alienation of public space is concerned, the public has a right to know… The Gallery’s Project Team has to date declined to provide the Master Plan.”
  • Funding. “Questions have been raised about: where this project fits within overall Government policy for funding arts institutions, particularly galleries in regional areas [and] lack of information about recurrent funding to support staffing and maintenance for a major new development of this kind.”

The full Sydney Modern Concerns Briefing Paper 10 October 2017 (click to access) sets these issues in context, referring to early criticism by former Prime Minister Paul Keating and former Supreme Court judge David Levine AO, and detailing how the design has been scaled down from the original version. Appended to the paper is an eloquent letter to the project team from Andrew Andersons, architect of two previous successful expansions to the existing AGNSW building.

Total Environment Centre campaign

Individuals and organisations publicly associated with the paper’s concerns include David Chesterman AM, architect, Bruce Robertson OAM, former chair of Taronga Park Zoo and also a former member of the RBG and Domain Trust, arts director Leo Schofield, the NSW National Parks Association and the Total Environment Centre.

In addition, the Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Garden remain opposed to any loss of green space and the NSW National Trust is understood to be writing to the Gallery to request an update of the Conservation Management Plan for The Domain before the development proceeds any further.

The NSW Government of Premier Gladys Berejiklian, which has promised $244 million towards the cost of Sydney Modern, has so far shown a Trump-like disdain for professional opinions in cultural matters; witness its disregard for the evidence against moving the Powerhouse from Ultimo to Parramatta, given by eminent professionals and former board members. Ms Berejiklian, her Arts Minister Don Harwin and Treasurer Dominic Perrottet have brushed aside the expert testimony to the current Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries in their hot pursuit of votes to win Western Sydney seats at the next State Election in March 2019.

But the chorus of voices querying the Sydney Modern development is becoming hard to ignore. The issue has even been raised in the NSW Parliament. On 12 October Opposition leader Luke Foley tabled a series of questions on notice concerning the area of land for Sydney Modern, the arrangements with the RBG and Domain Trust, the proposed vehicular access and the number of trees and shrubs to be removed. A week later Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, an Independent, asked similar questions, and also wanted to know whether the 2013 Master Plan and other relevant documents would be released. Foley’s questions are to be answered on 16 November, Greenwich’s on 23 November.

This month too, the AGNSW Annual Report is due to be tabled; and that Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries is due to present its report. While the AGNSW bureaucrats want to shut down the Sydney Modern controversy, it isn’t going to go away yet.

Consultation or spin?

I wrote recently about the AGNSW’s series of state-wide “consultation” meetings (see second item of 19 October blog) that were hastily convened, poorly advertised and appeared to be designed primarily to tick a box for the Sydney Modern development application. Lack of adequate consultation about the project seems to be an issue that unites all its critics. But you wouldn’t know that from reading a recent article by reporter Julie Power in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Published on 30 October in the print edition, and online under the headline, “Sydney Modern goes bush in search of feedback from the people of NSW”, it enthused about responses at a meeting in Broken Hill and quoted an unnamed Gallery spokesperson as saying that the planned new precinct “excited communities”. The meetings, Ms Power wrote, were “a way to deepen existing relationships” and the $39,000 spent on consultants’ fees for the sessions was, according to Gallery director Dr Michael Brand, “money well spent”.

The Royal Botanic Garden – Sydney’s lungs

It was a piece of gushing PR that prompted a letter to the Herald from David Chesterman, one of the eminent concerned persons referred to above. He was the architect of the land bridge constructed in the late 1990s over the Cahill Expressway – a brilliant piece of engineering that both shielded the Gallery from the roar of the traffic and provided a green space linking it to the Botanic Garden (see the aerial view at the top of this page).

The Roads Minister at the time, Carl Scully, writes in his memoir Setting the Record Straight that the land bridge was “a very welcome addition to the Botanical Gardens” and calls it “an astonishing act of irony” that in 2013 the Gallery announced the proposal to build Sydney Modern “right on top of the open space I had proudly left for the people of Sydney. This is land still being paid for by Sydney motorists every day through tolls and was never intended as a site for Art Gallery dreams of expansion.”

To return to Mr Chesterman’s letter, published on 1 November. He wrote: “One would think from the recent article on Sydney Modern that there was no opposition to its proposed location.” He went on: “The Gallery continues to keep secret the 2013 Master Plan on the project: the only document where alternative sites within the Domain or elsewhere are said to have been considered. No photomontages showing the proposed building and its impact along Art Gallery Road have been provided. The public is entitled to much more information about the real impacts of the Sydney Modern proposal before a development application is lodged.”

How did The Sydney Morning Herald get it so wrong? Well, at the bottom of the article there’s a disclosure. Ms Power’s trip to Broken Hill wasn’t paid for by the paper. It was paid for by the AGNSW. “Independent. Always” the Herald’s masthead proclaims. Really?

Journalists’ expenses for stories about the Art Gallery were never paid by the taxpayer in director Edmund Capon’s day.