Search for a construction manager

The position of Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, currently held by Dr Michael Brand, has been put up for grabs just as the institution is about to deliver its response to the many objections to its proposed Sydney Modern expansion.

The job ad, which appears on NSW Government websites and in local media, is an extraordinary document on at least three counts.

First, before the Development Application (DA) for Sydney Modern has even been determined, front and centre of the advert is a statement which reads as if the monumental project is a fait accompli. It says in part:

“The Gallery is currently undergoing an expansion, which involves the construction of a new building to the north of the existing Gallery building… The expansion is being jointly funded by public and private contributions. The new building is planned for completion in 2021 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Gallery’s founding…”

This prompted one irate member of the Art Gallery Society to ask: Are they looking for a construction manager?

The green space that Sydney Modern plans to occupy

Second, the advert contains the following astonishing news: “The Art Gallery of New South Wales is an Executive Agency under the Department of Planning and Environment.”

Since when? The AGNSW has always reported to the Minister for the Arts, as stipulated in the 1980 Act which governs it. Its annual reports go to that Minister.

The Minister for Planning is currently Anthony Roberts, MP for Lane Cove, who is also Minister for Housing, Special Minister of State and Leader of the House. He is a major fundraiser for the Liberal Party and is not known to have an interest in the arts comparable to that of Arts Minister Don Harwin, who in the bizarre way of NSW politics is also Minister for Resources, Energy and Utilities.

NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts

What is the chance that Minister Roberts will ensure an independent investigation of the DA, to which 178 individuals and 17 organisations have lodged serious objections? Pretty low. His own department has put out an advert for Director which states that Sydney Modern will go ahead!

Third. another extraordinary aspect of the job ad is the timeframe. It appeared on limited media on 22 February, with a closing date for applications of 8 March.

The role of Director of the public gallery of Australia’s most populous state is one which requires a major search, nationally and internationally, for the best candidate available – someone with the vision and experience to fulfil the institution’s core aims which are, under the 1980 Act: “(a) to develop and maintain a collection of works of art; and (b) to propagate and increase knowledge and appreciation of art.”

In 1979 then Premier Neville Wran plucked Edmund Capon from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) to fulfil these objectives, and he did so for more than 30 years. Where is the commitment to do anything comparable today?

According to Julie Power, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist who seems to be the conduit for all kinds of information from the upper echelons of the Gallery, Dr Brand will apply to continue in the $452,250 job. Power’s 23 February story listed reasons to reappoint him.

But as the advert went out, Dr Brand was putting his Bellevue Hill mansion on the market. Purchased for $3.2 million in 2012, when he took up the job, it will certainly sell for more than that today.

Spare a thought for him. Never considered “Mr Charisma” at the Gallery, where he was responsible for far-reaching redundancies and the creation of a highly-paid, deeply unpopular super-executive team, he nonetheless loyally fronted for the grandiose expansion plan driven by a Board of Trustees dominated by the Lowy family and its associates. Last year, when his five-year contract ended, he was given a one-year extension, and now his job is being thrown open. Some thanks!

Dr Brand has finally addressed at least one contentious leadership issue, on 27 February informing staff of the abrupt departure of Director of “Public Engagement” Jacquie Riddell, the self-styled “creategist” in charge of marketing, communications, education, membership and almost everything. His email thanked her for her “professionalism and transformative leadership”, but curators and other staff were reportedly not unhappy at the change. “Break out the bubbly,” one texted me.

Mike Baird to face inquiry as NSW “culture” plans unravel

Meanwhile on 4 April all eyes will be on the Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries where former NSW premier Mike Baird is being summonsed to answer questions about the Powerhouse move from Ultimo to Parramatta, announced by him three years ago.

With gobsmacking hubris, Baird – now back in investment banking – had already declined two invitations to appear before the committee.

When the Upper House committee met on 15 February it voted to compel appearances by witnesses who had refused to attend. Another witness summonsed is Baird’s former chief of staff Bay Warburton, who now holds a lucrative executive position with developer Mirvac where, as “Head of Stakeholder Relations”, he is responsible for dealings with government, media and investors. The inquiry has no power to compel an appearance by current Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who has also declined an invitation.

Berejiklian and Baird – Premiers for developers

The Coalition Government has been lambasted by chair Robert Borsak MLC, of the Shooters and Fishers Party. “From the very start of this inquiry,” he told the press, “the Government has obfuscated and [failed] to release details of the business case for relocating the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta. Nobody has provided a straight answer on why this decision was made before the Government knew how much it would cost, how they could move the Powerhouse Museum or whether the plan is even value for money. The public has a right to know the reason for such secrecy.”

Museum professionals have previously told the inquiry that moving the Powerhouse and its extensive collection is likely to cost upwards of $1.5 billion, an expenditure for which the Government has no known plans. The business case is to be delivered any day now. It was commissioned last year only after the Government had taken the decision, first announced by Baird and ratified by Berejiklian, to move the museum. Like the business case for Sydney Modern, the Powerhouse document remains shrouded in secrecy, with the Government claiming it is covered by Cabinet confidentiality.

The Upper House committee is understood to be seeking advice from the Clerk of the Parliament on how to access the secret Cabinet documents. It has extended its reporting date to 28 June. So far it has focused on the Powerhouse; the many objectors to Sydney Modern would welcome it looking at that issue too.

Opposition being wedged on arts policy

There’s an urgency to discovering what’s in the business cases for the two projects, with questions being raised not only about cost overruns – a certainty in both instances – but about the legitimacy of releasing funds at all.

The NSW Coalition Government’s proceeds from the sales of electricity network leases have been placed into an infrastructure fund known as Restart NSW. According to a 13 February report in The Sydney Morning Herald, a question mark now hangs over whether the $2.3 billion earmarked for rebuilding Sydney’s stadiums can be released from the fund, which stipulates that projects must have a positive financial benefits-to-cost ratio (BCR).

The same surely applies to the Powerhouse move and to Sydney Modern, where it would take some exceptional juggling with figures to show that either project would bring in more revenue than costs. A financial BCR is in any case an entirely inappropriate way to look at arts expenditure. The cultural wellbeing of society cannot be measured in numbers alone.

On 16 February I sent the following questions to Create NSW and the Cultural Infrastructure Program Management Office:

“1) Is the Cultural Infrastructure Fund part of Restart NSW?

“2) Does it have the same conditions of benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) for proposed projects, i.e. that the BCR must be positive for funds to be released?

“3) If so, how is BCR calculated for cultural projects?

“4) What is the BCR for the proposed Sydney Modern development at the AGNSW?”

I have received a statement about the Regional Cultural Fund, to the effect that any regional application above $5 million requires a BCR, but so far no answer to the above questions.

Government appears determined to rush through approvals for its major projects in advance of the March 2019 State election. According to politicians and political correspondents I have spoken to, the Berejiklian Coalition is desperate to wedge NSW Labor with billions of dollars worth of projects, including hospitals, schools, roads, tunnels, bridges, galleries, museums and football stadiums. If Labor wins in March 2019 its own spending manifesto will be made redundant by the Coalition’s pre-election commitments. That’s a “wedge”. An incoming Labor government will be accused of failing to fulfil its election commitments, while the Coalition’s pork-barrelling plans and commitments to the big end of town go ahead.

Luke Foley’s ALP, the Greens and Independents would be well advised to oppose any commitments to Sydney Modern or the Powerhouse move in advance of the next election. The most sensible course for the new government would be to leave the Powerhouse where it is, and build an AGNSW extension in Parramatta.