Sydney media are abuzz with stories about the lavish taxpayer-funded expenses bill run up by Art Gallery of New South Wales director Dr Michael Brand.

First Daily Telegraph reporter Christopher Harris dug up the statements of Brand’s public-purse credit card, which listed several restaurant bills of more than $1,000, payments to his local bottle shop of up to $718 a time, and a taxi fare of $420. Then 2GB’s Ben Fordham weighed in, and got NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet on his program to say such behaviour was “completely out of touch”, “has no place in government and… has to stop”. By now the story was running hot across the country in Murdoch-syndicated news outlets. Andrew Hornery of the Sydney Morning Herald also led his “Private Sydney” column with the story, referring to the “seismic shift in culture” that took place when Brand replaced the late Edmund Capon as director in 2012, following the latter’s retirement after 33 years in the job.

The question arts insiders are asking is: Why now? Of course, such extraordinary use of public funds is offensive at a time when the vast majority of the population face rapidly escalating cost-of-living pressures. The expenses come on top of the director’s salary, listed in the most recent annual report as $487,002. But rumours about Dr Brand’s expenses – including his travel costs, yet to be disclosed – have been circulating for years. Freedom of Information requests prior to the Daily Telegraph’s – including from the Sydney Morning Herald – had revealed nothing. Meanwhile careful book-keeping, listing expenses under headings such as “fund-raising for Sydney Modern”, kept them from the probing eyes of the Auditor-General, who signed off on the accounts with a disclaimer concerning both the effectiveness of oversight by the Trust and the assumptions in formulating budget figures. The story has now broken just six months before the opening of the Gallery’s grandiose Sydney Modern extension, scheduled for 3 December (aerial view above).

Background to the scandal

Could it be that the penny has finally dropped, in high places, that there are serious problems with the sustainability of the new glass-walled palace on the Harbour – supposedly Dr Brand’s crowning achievement? Ever since the Board of Trustees announced its intentions in 2013, Sydney Modern has been the subject of controversy, with the Trust accused of delusions of grandeur.

First came the issue of funding the construction. It took some time, and the best efforts of David Gonski, returning as President of the Board of Trustees in 2016, to get the NSW Government to commit to $344 million of the anticipated $450 million cost; it came with the proviso that the remainder should be raised by the Gallery. That has taken nine years, and considerable expenditure, including millions on “consultants”. As Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald wrote in his weekly newsletter, that “looks a bit pathetic when one considers that in April, the National Gallery of Victoria received a single donation of $100 million from transport magnate, Lindsay Fox”, ascribing the NGV’s relative success to its high attendance and quality shows.

Next came the furore over the design by Japanese architects SANAA. When the development application was lodged in November 2017, objections were lodged by 170 individuals and 17 organisations, among them distinguished architects, arts professionals and heritage experts. They were all ignored.

There remains the issue of recurrent funding for the Gallery. In 2020-2021 it stood at $33 million (the NGV had $51.4 million from the Victorian Government in the same year). No plans have been released for increasing funding to meet the huge running costs of the new building. The air-conditioning alone, in Sydney’s climate, will cost a fortune. Then there’s the doubling of the workload for curators, conservationists, installation crews and cleaners.

Delusions of grandeur

The business case for Sydney Modern remains a secret, deemed to be covered by “in-Cabinet confidentiality” at a time when Gladys Berejiklian was Premier and Don Harwin – now pensioned off, with a plum job on the board of the Australia Council – was Arts Minister. It’s widely believed, however, that the projections were for two million visitors a year; any failure to reach that number will now be attributed to Covid and the world economic crisis. But the high numbers were always going to be a big ask, when bricks and mortar were prioritised over curatorship, innovative exhibitions and care of the collection. There will be a rush of visitors when the new building opens, but ongoing audience figures were exaggerated and will depend on the quality of what’s on offer.

Premier Perrottet was never a fan of former Minister Harwin’s ambitions to be Sydney’s arts Tsar. They were from different factions of the Liberal Party – Perrottet a right-centrist, Harwin a “wet”. Now, with a looming black hole in his budget and pressing demands from all sectors, the Premier may be thinking twice about bumping up recurrent funding for arts institutions.

If there is no major funding increase announced in the budget handed down on 21 June, the Gallery will be left with the prospect of a white elephant on the Harbour – not so much a great cultural centre for the people, as a venue where corporate bosses and Government ministers can rub shoulders, drink champagne and admire the view. In that case Dr Brand could be the fall guy for the failure of the grand project.

In 2017 I wrote in my book Culture Heist: “Public museums and galleries are not the property of those entrusted with their care. They do not belong to the directors and executives who manage them, nor to the boards who oversee them, nor to the governments responsible for their care. They belong to the people – and not only to existing audiences, but to the multitudes who have yet to claim their right to experience the transformative power of art and culture.”

To restore that mission requires not only a funding increase and a change of leadership, but a complete review of arts policy, funding priorities and the role of arts boards.


Sources for this article include:

Christopher Harris, “Art Gallery boss spent thousands wining and dining at Sydney’s best restaurants” Daily Telegraph 7 June 2022

Ben Fordham, “NSW Premier blasts ‘completely out of touch’ Art Gallery boss” 2GB, 10 June 2022

Andrew Hornery, “After having the cake, critics dine out on gallery director’s restaurant bill”, Sydney Morning Herald 11 June 2022

John McDonald, Newsletter 443, 13 June 2022

Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report, 2020-2021

National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report, 2020-2021