JUDITH WHITE. Government arts policy slammed in NSW report

The NSW Coalition Government has breached its own Treasury guidelines and governance of the arts and culture sector needs a complete review, according to the final report of the Upper House Inquiry into Museums and Galleries.

Released on 28 February, the report is introduced by the Inquiry chair, Robert Borsak MLC of the Shooters and Fishers Party. He writes: “The decision to relocate the Powerhouse Museum has been based on poor planning and advice, a flawed business case and insufficient community consultation. Nothing so far has demonstrated the necessity or purpose for relocating this world renowned cultural institution, an institution that is much loved and internationally well regarded.”He adds that there are “serious concerns which have been raised in relation to the management, leadership and culture within the Powerhouse Museum, and the role and authority of the Board of Trustees. These issues came to the forefront recently with a controversial fashion ball fundraising event, which ended up costing more money than it raised, and significantly affected the museum’s and Board’s reputation.”

The principal finding of the Inquiry is that the final business case for the relocation failed to comply with Treasury’s guide to cost-benefit analysis. It took more than two years for the business case, initially declared Cabinet-in-confidentiality, to be brought to light. That happened only under the threat of a constitutional crisis when the Upper House of NSW Parliament ordered Government to produce the documents last year.

The finding must mean that a huge question mark hangs over the business case – still secret to this day – for the Government’s other major cultural infrastructure commitment, to the Sydney Modern Project at the Art Gallery of NSW. How can a government which has breached its own guidelines in one case be trusted to have observed them in another?

The case of Sydney Modern was not investigated by the Inquiry, but must come under the terms of reference of the parliamentary review into the sector now proposed by the Inquiry committee, and to be conducted following the 23 March State election.

The review is one of six key recommendations of the report. Another is that the NSW Government exempt cultural institutions from the notorious “efficiency dividend” spending cuts which have reduced staff levels and inflicted serious damage on the sector.

The recommendations, in full, are as follows:

Recommendation 1 That the NSW Government not proceed with the relocation of the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta.

Recommendation 2 That the NSW Government restore the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo, by providing a significant injection of funding for refurbishment and expansion.

Recommendation 3 That the NSW Government, instead of relocating the Powerhouse Museum, establish a world-class cultural institution in Parramatta that reflects its own extraordinary history.

Recommendation 4 That the NSW Government consider establishing a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences satellite site in Western Sydney.

Recommendation 5 That the NSW Government exempt state-owned museums from the annual efficiency dividend.

Recommendation 6 That the Legislative Council, in the 57th Parliament, establish a Select Committee to inquire into and report on the governance of the arts and culture sector in New South Wales, with particular reference to the governance and management of the Powerhouse Museum relocation project.

Members of the Inquiry committee who endorsed the report, along with Borsak, are MLCs David Shoebridge of the Greens and Walt Secord and Shaoquette Moselmane of the Labor Party. Dissenting opinions were lodged by MLCs Shayne Mallard and Scott Farlow of the Liberal Party and Trevor Khan of the Nationals.

Secord and Shoebridge were particularly active in questioning witnesses throughout the Inquiry’s proceedings, and are understood to have had considerable input into the recommendations. It’s to be hoped that this collaboration will continue in the next Parliament, whatever the outcome of the election in three weeks’ time. The review proposed by the Inquiry is urgently needed to put an end to the secrecy, double-dealing and incompetence which has characterised the Coalition Government’s cultural spending policy.

The full report, including summaries of evidence from seasoned museum professionals, is available on the NSW Parliament website HERE.

Judith White is the author of ‘Culture Heist: Art versus Money’, Brandl & Schlesinger 2017, and is a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW. This article first appeared on her website, www.cultureheist.com.au

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