By Judith White

The NSW government is on the brink of making another expensive blunder in arts policy, and it’s time for concerned citizens to speak out.

On 15 November the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) revealed the final design for the massively ambitious expansion plan known as Sydney Modern, and at the same time lodged a development application (DA) for it as a State Significant Development. By lodging as a State Significant application (more than $10 million) the AGNSW is hoping to get the nod, as happened at Barangaroo.

Unveiled by NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin, the design will remain on show at the Art Gallery of NSW until 15 December. As part of the DA process, during that time members of the public can make submissions about the plan on the Department of Planning website.

The announcement of the design was accompanied by a fanfare of publicity. The new building, pronounced the Gallery, would transform the institution into “one of the world’s great museums”. Really?!

But not everyone is buying it. ABC TV news that night interviewed both David Chesterman, architect of the land bridge over the Cahill Expressway, and Clive Austin, chair of the Foundation and Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden (for more on them see my previous blog ‘Criticism grows over Gallery expansion plan’). Both expressed concern about the loss of green space. Even the environmental impact statement accompanying the DA warns of “moderate adverse heritage impact” on the RBG.

The next day The Sydney Morning Herald published an angry letter from respected museum consultant Kylie Winkworth. She said in part: “What is ‘unbuilt land’ for the development ambitions of the Art Gallery of NSW, is part of the Royal Botanic Gardens for everyone else. This precious parkland has hung on in Sydney for more than 200 years. It must be defended from any more development, whether the project is commercial, cultural or tourism…; parks belong to the people of NSW not the government.”

Reader Diana Simmons also weighed in, seizing on a fatuous comment about the site from Gabrielle Upton, the hapless Minister for the Environment, Local Government and Heritage (there’s a piece of casting for you). “It’s a piece of open space which is not being used,” Upton said.

“Open space is open space,” Simmonds retorted. “Non-used space where someone can walk through or sit for a while and contemplate… The Botanic Gardens has been described as ‘the lungs of the city’. We need to breathe, don’t we?”

Green space and cultural infrastructure

The issue of green space is an important one, but it’s an argument the Coalition Government has a track record of ignoring – think WestConnex. And the loss of open space is far from the only problem with the Sydney Modern extravaganza.

Green space under threat

It takes more than a building to make “one of the world’s greatest museums”. It takes a great collection and a clear artistic direction. While the AGNSW collection contains many much-loved works, it is not yet an international attraction; and as for artistic direction, this is precisely what has suffered in the four-and-a-half-year obsessive pursuit of Sydney Modern. The Gallery’s 2018 program, announced at the same time as the DA, is decidedly lacklustre. Headlined by an over-inflated Brett Whiteley drawings show, it has been termed “threadbare” by eminent Sydney art critic John McDonald.

Nothing in the plans released so far suggests that resources will go into curatorial excellence rather than bricks and mortar. On the contrary, the NSW Government is continuing its punishing “efficiency dividend” – an annual spending cut which cripples the staff budget of cultural institutions.

The business case for Sydney Modern remains shrouded in secrecy, but the government appears to have accepted it. In June it allocated $244 million of the cost, with the bulk of funds to be available only after the 2019 state election. How the project will then be completed, as promised, by the Gallery’s 150th anniversary in 2021 is anyone’s guess. Arts Minister Don Harwin nonetheless blithely claimed this week that the expansion would inject more than $1 billion into the NSW economy.

Such an approach is far behind the best thinking internationally. It’s like sticking with coal in the face of climate change. Since the global financial crisis of 2008-9 the tide has turned against the building of expensive galleries with no adequate forward planning. Adding his voice to those documented in my book Culture Heist is British author and broadcaster Jonathan Meades. He gave an address to this year’s annual dinner of London’s Royal Academy in which he denounced the seizure of power by “a managerial caste which exercises patronage, commissions rather than creates, edits rather than makes, inflicts its off-the-peg taste, does deals and builds empires”.

In a more recent piece on ‘The Bilbao Effect’ for The Spectator, Meades wrote scathingly about “staggeringly expensive new buildings that assuage the vanity of cities and their bosses”. Even the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which set the trend for new infrastructure 20 years ago, has done nothing to revive the local economy. “The economic beneficiaries of ‘regeneration’,” Meades continued, “are limited to, initially, the construction industry and, subsequently, the tourist trade. There is no more drip down from these projects than there is from supply-side tax breaks.”

Closer to home, the arts policy of the NSW government seems to be limited to ill-considered knee-jerk splurges of expenditure to suit particular political purposes – the proposed relocation of the Powerhouse being a case in point.

As Kylie Winkworth told Culture Heist this week: “The crying shame of all this is that the government is making the biggest investment in Sydney’s cultural infrastructure in more than a generation, but the merits of each project are far from clear. And the reports which should justify the rationale for the funding decisions are mostly secret, especially when it comes to looking at opportunity costs and options.”

In the case of Sydney Modern, the investigation of alternative locations and the current business case for the project both remain secret; and there is no undertaking from government to increase recurrent funding. That will be a headache handed to the next administration after the State election in March 2019.

Call for a broader view

The call for submissions about the DA for the new building is an opportunity for everyone who cares about the culture of our society to demand a rethink of arts policy.

Rather than bowing to powerful lobby groups, NSW needs an overall cultural policy based on what is required. As Kylie Winkworth sees it: “After the billions are spent NSW will still have no museum for NSW history, no Aboriginal cultural centre, no design museum, and no museum about Aboriginal contact history and migration and settlement since 1788. None of the missing links in Sydney’s cultural infrastructure, nor the entrenched cultural inequalities in funding for Western Sydney and regional NSW are addressed in the government’s cash splash. Instead this is about giving money to the projects advanced by the big men on certain boards and trusts… this is why Sydney is a cultural loser.”

Just to remind you about some of the “big men on boards and trusts”: since 1989 the board of the AGNSW has been dominated by some of the richest men in Australia. Its presidents in that time have been Frank Lowy of Westfield, his adviser David Gonski, his son Steven Lowy (who first announced the Sydney Modern plan in 2013), followed by Guido Belgiorno-Nettis of Transfield, and since January 2016 David Gonski again. Since the first announcement of the plan none has publicly declared how much they will contribute to the project; rather they have lobbied for the biggest investment of public money in NSW history.

The Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, which has begun to ask the right questions about the disastrous impact of moving the Powerhouse collection to Parramatta, has now postponed its reporting date to 1 March 2018. It’s high time the committee looked at the secretive Sydney Modern plan too.

In the meantime, the NSW Government needs to call a halt to its vanity-driven cash splash projects and restore recurrent funding to cash-strapped cultural institutions across the state.

If you care about all this, please don’t forget to put in your submission [repeat link].

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