JUDITH WHITE. Risks of gallery expansion

The NSW Coalition government has allocated $244m towards a major new building at the state Art Gallery. But questions are being raised about its ongoing funding and its mission as a public institution.

Last year international art consultant Adrian Ellis wrote in the London-based publication The Art Newspaper about the trend away from grandiose museum expansion plans. He warned: “The shoals and whirlpools of capital projects still suck careless museums in. The most common causes of a dunking – and sometimes a drowning – are neglect of the invariably adverse impact that an expansion has on the relationship of income to expenditure, on cash flow, and on the strength of the balance sheet… the potential of the expansion goes unrealised because the resources are not available to program it effectively.”

Does this apply to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and its ambitious expansion plan known as Sydney Modern? You bet it does.

In last month’s NSW Budget the Art Gallery finally secured $244 million in public money towards construction.

End of problem? More like the beginning.

True, the scale of the project has been reduced to make it more realistic. The grand plaza linking the old building and the new has been dropped altogether, bringing the estimated cost down from $450 million to $380 million.

So construction is on the cards. But how do you pay for the huge increase in running costs?

Compared to other state galleries, the AGNSW is already under-funded. In financial year 2015-2016 the NSW government contributed $23.9 million of its $45.7 million operating costs. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the most commercially successful state gallery, received $46.3 million in state funding of its $83.2 million operating costs.

Options for ongoing funding

Sydney Modern will at least double the AGNSW’s operating costs. Art Gallery managers have put a business case to the Coalition government, and we’re told that the Department of Premier and Cabinet has done financial modelling. But there are only so many ways in which increased costs can be met:

  • A doubling of state government recurrent funding. The best option but the least likely, given that successive governments are going in the opposite direction with arts funding. The Berejiklian government has already increased the “efficiency dividend” spending cut for the coming year from 1.5% to 2%. This means a further squeeze on an institution under stress.
  • Self-funding through commercial activities. Public cultural institutions have to generate commercial revenue from ticketed exhibitions, shops, cafes and venue hire, but none has ever achieved self-funding. If Melbourne’s NGV, with twice the number of visitors, hasn’t got there, how can the AGNSW? In financial year 2015-2016 the NGV’s commercial revenue was more than $10 million up on the previous year, but operating costs were also up, by $16 million. The only way Sydney Modern could pay for itself would be by operating as a full-time corporate function centre. Is former Prime Minister Paul Keating right that it will be “a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery”?
  • User pays – imposing entrance fees, charging schools. This would be entirely against the ethos of the public gallery. Entrance fees were abolished and the old turnstiles were removed by Neville Wran’s government in 1979. Edmund Capon was adamant throughout his 33 years as director that they would never be reinstated. Volunteers, members and other supporters flocked to the institution for that reason. The first breach in that ethos is the recent introduction of charges for school groups.
  • Privatise the whole place. Sounds far-fetched? Think about the NSW government’s plans for The Rocks, the Powerhouse Museum, the GPO in Martin Place, Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street and other historic sites which developers are wetting their lips over.

The age of the asset sale

The keynote policy of NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Coalition government of 2014 to 2017, in which his successor Gladys Berejiklian was Treasurer, was the Great Asset Sell-off, and not just of the electricity distribution network. Public assets are now viewed as disposable real estate rather than as instruments for the public good.

Two key examples:

The Powerhouse Museum.  When the Baird government decided, in a knee-jerk response to the powerful Western Sydney lobby, to move the Powerhouse to Parramatta, it viewed the change as a simple real estate transaction: sell the Ultimo site to pay for the new museum. No thought was given to the priceless collection, until seasoned professionals came forward to the NSW Parliament’s Upper House inquiry, due to report next month, to demonstrate that the cost of moving the collection would be many times greater than the estimate.

Sydney’s art schools. For more than a year, the three main tertiary art schools have been under pressure from the NSW government to merge. Next year the Sydney College of the Arts will be evicted from its government-owned Callan Park home and relocated to the crowded main campus. On the other side of town, the National Art School has fought off pressure to merge with the University of NSW’s Art and Design school, but management of its home in the historic Darlinghurst Gaol buildings has been transferred, ominously, from the Department of Education to Property NSW.

Down the track, in an atmosphere of financial uncertainty, other cultural institutions could go the same way.

Public museums, galleries and libraries are for the enrichment of the whole of society. Many of us visit them for ticketed exhibitions, and exhibition programs are certainly vital. But their core purpose remains the development of collections to which everyone should have access, regardless of income or background.

Restoring public confidence

At the AGNSW there is a long way to go to restore public trust. The announcement of the $244 million funding was met with scepticism in many letters to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. The Foundation and Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens expressed disappointment, given that 57% of the proposed site belongs to the Gardens. My own inbox is full of expressions of concern.

So what can be done?

  • The AGNSW should immediately publish its business plan and embark on the widest consultation about how it can be realised.
  • Government and AGNSW management should jointly pledge that entrance fees will never be re-imposed.
  • The AGNSW should end all charges for public programs for schools.
  • The secret Memorandum of Understanding between the Gallery and the governing Council of its membership body, the Art Gallery Society, should be published.

If we can’t get transparency, it will be time to review the way in which arts boards and managements are appointed in NSW. Cultural institutions belong to the public, not to the state’s secretive deal-makers.

Judith White is a former executive director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money published by Brandl & Schlesinger in May 2017. This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on her website www.cultureheist.com.au

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