The reappointment of Dr Michael Brand as director of the Art Gallery of NSW signals the Coalition Government’s determination to push ahead with building the $344 million Sydney Modern expansion on green space alongside the Harbour shoreline (digital impression above). News of the reappointment came two days after it was confirmed that Planning Minister Anthony Roberts will be the sole consent authority for Sydney Modern’s Development Application (DA), despite pleas from many of the 178 objectors for it to be referred to the Independent Planning Commission.

The decision came in defiance of the overwhelming objections, without regard to the overall cultural requirements of the State and with no serious consideration of alternative sites.

Dr Michael Brand

In a 10 May press release announcing Brand’s reappointment, Arts Minister Don Harwin said that in his six years at the helm the director had “impressed the arts community and inspired audiences” and added: “With the Gallery set to undergo a once in a generation expansion, Michael’s passion for the project made him an obvious choice to guide our magnificent cultural institution.”

Art critics are among the many unconvinced by the claim that the AGNSW under Brand has “inspired audiences”. Sydney Morning Herald columnist John McDonald wrote in his personal blog that the Gallery “has allowed exhibitions to slide down the list of priorities… How the government expects audience numbers to double without a concerted focus on exhibitions is a complete mystery… For the past few years we have seen no indication that the AGNSW is thinking about anything but the building itself.“

Many Gallery staff and supporters share his concerns. One former senior curator told me: “I now think of the AGNSW as of an old friend who has died.”

Responsibility for the autocratic decision-making about Sydney Modern rests with Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Cabinet, which is refusing to release the project’s business case for public scrutiny. One leading objector, former Environmental Defenders Office chair Bruce Donald, has slammed the refusal, saying: “Major projects require full public access to the detailed case with decisions being made by transparent and independent processes, not by ministers behind closed doors.”

Secret business cases

There can be no public trust in a business case kept secret by Cabinet – and not only because of the Berejiklian’s alarming record of cost overruns on infrastructure projects. The sums may just be wrong.

Earlier this month it was revealed that in the case of the Powerhouse move, for which only a brief summary of the business case has been published, incorrect figures had been used. Questions in the Upper House by Deputy Opposition Leader Walt Secord revealed that a variation from the usual discount rate was used in calculating the Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR), which in the case of all Restart NSW infrastructure projects has to be positive – and that pushed the figure over the line.

How the Sydney Modern project – or any public cultural institution – can have a positive BCR is beyond imagination. It would require the projected doubling of visitation to be not only achieved but sustained, while ongoing costs remain at their present low level.

In all its “cultural infrastructure” projects the Berejiklian Government has shown not the slightest concern for the recurrent funding necessary to sustain institutions – or the increase in recurrent funding required for an expanded institution to fulfil its purpose. Minister Harwin even told Parliament on 1 May, in relation to the Powerhouse: “New museum operating costs are absolutely the last thing someone would regard as a cost of developing the museum because they are nothing other than the existing budget … times the lifespan of the project.” In other words, there will be no increase in recurrent funding for his gargantuan projects.

There is little chance of the secretive Berejiklian Government releasing the business case for either the Powerhouse or Sydney Modern. That same 1 May parliamentary session saw a stormy discussion over Cabinet’s refusal to comply with the Legislative Council’s demand for release of the full documents concerning the Powerhouse relocation. Both Walt Secord and Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who moved the original motion for publication the previous month, were ejected from the Upper House chamber.

But Harwin – a seasoned political operator and Liberal Party numbers man – justified his refusal to comply with the motion by citing a Premier’s Memorandum on Cabinet confidentiality issued in 2006 under the Labor government of Premier Morris “Open for Business” Iemma. It decreed that “unauthorised” disclosure of Cabinet documents “undermines collective ministerial responsibility”. The Iemma memorandum was a way of circumventing the High Court’s decision in the case of Egan v Chadwick, which affirmed the principle that ministers were responsible to parliament and should release documents when requested. The ALP memo is now being used by the Berejiklian government to keep matters of demonstrable public interest concealed from Australia’s oldest parliament and the public.

Luke Foley’s Labor Opposition has so far shown no sign of opposing Sydney Modern in the way it has opposed the Powerhouse move, but the new building in The Domain will prove to be a similar millstone round the neck of any incoming government.

Arts Minister Don Harwin, right, with David Gonski

The very name of Sydney Modern suggests a turn away from the core functions of a State institution. At a time when smart institutions around the world – the Tate, the Louvre, the big American museums – are taking up the satellite model and expanding into new areas, the Berejiklian Government is pandering to the big end of town and leaving the regions bereft.

That’s now the NSW brand of cultural policy.

What could possibly go wrong?

Responsibility for giving the green light to the DA for the AGNSW expansion lies with Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Arts Minister Don Harwin and Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, who is expected to give it the go-ahead in the near future.

Treasurer Perrottet and Premier Berejiklian

At the Gallery itself the project rests with Director Michael Brand and President of the Trustees David Gonski – a longstanding associate of multi-billionaire Frank Lowy whose son Steven first announced the plan with Brand five years ago. After months of uncertainty over the directorship – in 2017 Brand’s original five-year contract was extended by just one year – Gonski said the Trustees were “very pleased” with his reappointment, which is for an unspecified term, but carries a salary considerably more than that of the State’s Premier.

Also giving fulsome support to Sydney Modern, despite the grave concerns of many members, are Art Gallery Society president Brian Ladd and Brand’s former colleague, executive director Ron Ramsey.

So now you know who to turn to when any of the following happen:

  • Costs blow out – par for the course with the Coalition Government, and highly likely given the difficult nature of the site. (If you’re in Sydney, try walking around it.)
  • Building operations drag on way beyond the proposed 2021 completion date.
  • Staff deprived of recurrent funding struggle to produce a credible exhibitions program.
  • Visitors to the new building find there is nowhere to park.
  • Parramatta remains without a public art gallery.
  • NSW still has no dedicated museum of Aboriginal history and culture – something recommended by Infrastructure NSW six years ago.
  • Regional museums and galleries find that the paltry $25 million a year allocated for the rest of the State’s cultural infrastructure does not stretch to covering their basic requirements.
  • Cultural institutions across NSW struggle to cope with ongoing cuts to their recurrent funding.

If any of the above eventuate, you can blame the Gang of Six: Berejiklian, Perrottet, Harwin, Roberts, Gonski and Brand.

For the background on Sydney Modern, see the book Culture Heist, available on special offer HERE.