Darren Steinberg, the CEO of Dexus. Photo: Wikicommons

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By Kylie Winkworth

Just before Christmas, NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin appointed four new trustees to the board of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), displacing two highly regarded trustees who were dropped after only one term. Reading the entrails of these new appointments reveals the grim future of the Powerhouse Museum (PHM).

A surprising appointment to the MAAS Trust is Darren Steinberg the CEO of Dexus, a property development and retail investment trust that part owns the MLC Centre and the Theatre Royal. Last year, more than 8,000 people signed a petition to re-open the Theatre Royal, which has been closed since March 2016. In 1972, Lend Lease, as developers of the MLC site, faced a public campaign against the demolition of the historic Theatre Royal. A new Theatre Royal was negotiated as part of the MLC development, funded by a generous bonus of 8,000sqm of office space. This is equivalent to nearly six extra floors, worth around $9-11m per annum.

Scant regard for cultural obligations

Minister Harwin met with Dexus in August last year to discuss re-opening the Theatre Royal. He told the Legislative Council’s museum inquiry that he was looking very closely at what the government could do and he has not ruled out kicking in taxpayers’ money. A lyric theatre is planned for the Powerhouse Museum site, jammed between four blocks of flats up to 70 storeys. In September, Harwin told the Museum Inquiry that a new lyric theatre at Ultimo was not inconsistent with support for reopening the Theatre Royal, and “we are doing what we can to do both”. In December, Steinberg was appointed to the MAAS Trust.

Theatre lovers in Sydney might wonder why the Arts Minister has given the Dexus CEO a prestigious cultural appointment when the company has shown scant regard for its cultural obligations and cannot manage the theatre it already owns.

If the Berejiklian government is re-elected, the Arts Minister will direct the MAAS Trust to hand over the Powerhouse Museum’s land for property development in a deal that is demonstrably not in the Museum’s interest. The Museum’s expansive 2.6ha site will be surrendered for what the government calls its “highest and best use”. That is not, as you might think, culture, tourism and education, but apartment towers. The proposed lyric theatre on the site of the demolished Powerhouse is the Minister’s cover for a shameless act of cultural vandalism. Minister Harwin’s appointments to the MAAS board suggest he is lining up the ducks for the big steal.

“The proposed lyric theatre is … a shameless act of cultural vandalism”

From the beginning of this saga four years ago, the MAAS Trust was told to keep quiet and roll over on the controversial demolition and “move” of the Powerhouse Museum. Now the Arts Minister has stacked the MAAS Trust with advocates for property development and privatisation. Five of the eight Trustees are part of the most powerful union in NSW, the Sydney Business Chamber and its Western Sydney affiliate. One mission of the Sydney Business Chamber is “recycling state assets”. Sydney First and Western Sydney First members have “the opportunity to engage in intimate political forums with the Premier and key government ministers”. The Chamber aims to “shape the public policy advocacy agenda that reflects the views of its members”.

A monstrous property play

That’s exactly what new Trustee David Borger has been doing. As executive director of the Western Sydney Business Chamber, Borger is the public face of the campaign to “move” the PHM to Parramatta.

The minister’s door is open to the Business Chamber and advocates of the PHM move to Parramatta, including Borger, Patricia Forsythe, executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber, Liz Ann Macgregor, director of the MCA and Lucy Turnbull.

In September 2016, Glover wrote to former Arts Minister Troy Grant setting out the Trust’s expectations for the move to Parramatta: ownership of the whole site unencumbered by other developments; a museum of equivalent scale and scope to the PHM; and sufficient funding for the safety of the collections and operations of the new site. We now know that none of these conditions will be met. The New Museum of Western Sydney will share its Parramatta site with a seventy storey super tower. The expansive mission of the PHM as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences is finished. The Parramatta museum is half the size of the PHM. The collection facilities are too small and cannot accommodate the PHM’s collections. And there is no increase in recurrent funding.

You don’t need to be a genius to see this is a bad deal for the Museum and NSW taxpayers. The Powerhouse to Parramatta “move” is just a cover for a monstrous property play. And now the fix is in.