Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Alec Kingham, Tuesday 5 September 2017

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Spare a thought for the poor Powerhouse Museum (PHM) this festive season. While its sister organisation the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) is rejoicing in the ministerial rubber stamp for the monster $344m Sydney Modern gallery on land belonging to the Royal Botanic Gardens, the PHM is desperately searching for dance partners to defend its ownership and right to stay in its architecturally significant buildings at Ultimo.

It is three years since Premier Mike Baird announced his captain’s pick to evict the PHM from its historic site at Ultimo and pack it off to Parramatta.
There was no feasibility study, no assessment of costs or options, and no consultation with the PHM’s board or director. Baird made it sound so easy, as if all that was needed was to call up the moving vans.
His cultural ambassador to western Sydney, the director of the MCA Liz Ann Macgregor, said at the time that the Powerhouse was the ‘obvious candidate’ to go west. What might be obvious to the director of a contemporary art gallery is far from obvious to the more than 12,000 people who signed the petition to keep the PHM in Ultimo and develop a new museum in Parramatta.

Macgregor’s argument was that the government would not fund a new museum in Parramatta without closing the Powerhouse at Ultimo. This defence of budgetary prudence seems questionable after last week’s announcement that the NSW government has found a lazy $2.5b to spend on demolishing and rebuilding not one, not two, but three stadiums within 23ks of the city.

There was not a peep out of the spruikers for cultural equity for Western Sydney when the Sydney Modern plans went on exhibition last week. It must have escaped the notice of the Daily Telegraph’s Fair Go for the West campaigners that the Sydney Modern project will concentrate three public art museums in the city, while Parramatta, which is pitching itself as a creative city, is the only city in Western Sydney without an art gallery.
Parramatta Council’s cultural plan says that an art gallery is a priority for the city. If the AGNSW considered building Sydney Modern in Parramatta it is not telling us. Like all the government’s infrastructure projects, the business case is a secret from the NSW taxpayers.

Since Baird announced the Powerhouse would be moving to Parramatta a secret conclave of consultants and public servants have been working on the project, including the move of the state’s most logistically complex and large collection.
There are 240,000 objects held in state-of-the-art environmentally zoned and accessible storage at Ultimo. More than $10m has been spent on what looks like a consultants’ picnic. None of their reports have been made public.
There is still no concept for the museum beyond vacuous clichés like ‘iconic first class museum’. Not a single new curator, designer or arts worker from western Sydney has been employed.

Arts Minister Don Harwin has done his best to put an appearance of proper planning around Baird’s thought bubble. This was undercut by the Premier confirming in July that the whole museum would be moving, while in midst of belated community consultations.
The extended business case on the PHM to Parramatta ‘move’ is due for completion at the end of the year. There have been hints from the Arts Minister that some ‘cultural presence’ or space may remain on the museum’s site at Ultimo, which may or may not include a residential tower.

Recent reports suggest that the museum is in talks with UTS about buying or leasing some of the site. One suggestion is that the science and technology collections would move to Parramatta while leaving the decorative arts and fashion at Ultimo.
This would destroy the core of the museum’s historic purpose as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences.

A remnant cultural presence on the PHM site at Ultimo may sound like an acceptable compromise in this long campaign. But trading a fully functioning public museum, wholly owned by the NSW community, for some indeterminate cultural presence still constitutes a world first museum demolition plan. The PHM is not a generic cultural space. It is a unique collecting organisation with a priceless heritage collection developed since 1879.

The community should not be complacent about a PHM/ UTS partnership, brokered in a desperate attempt to keep some part of the site as a museum.
Ask anyone in Darlington, Chippendale or Camperdown and they will tell you that universities eat their neighbourhoods for breakfast.
It doesn’t matter if the museum’s partner is UTS, Lend Lease or any other nameless centre, if an MOU involves the leasing, subcontracting or exclusive use of any of the museum’s exhibition spaces, buildings, land or resources.

The Powerhouse Museum Alliance has issued a statement of concern about the mooted PHM/ UTS partnership. The PMA does not support a partnership or MOU that gives UTS, or any other organisation, the dedicated use of all or part of the museum’s facilities, land, collections and expertise.
The museum’s buildings, collection and staff are funded by NSW taxpayers for the benefit of the whole community. They should not be subcontracted or leased to any one organisation in the guise of a partnership. The Powerhouse Museum’s facilities must remain in public hands, open and accessible to the whole community.

Meanwhile three years of uncertainty and remorseless budget cuts are grinding away the museum’s visitors, revenue, sponsors and self-belief.
The last annual report is dismal; falling ticket income, lower commercial revenue and a deficit of $10m. The MAAS trust met just six times, a remarkably lax and hands-off performance considering the death threats facing the museum.
There were only 176 acquisitions last financial year, down from 725 a decade ago.

Reading the annual report , the collection seems increasingly peripheral to the museum’s exhibitions, research and programs.
Each year the museum is looking more like a cross between Westfield and Carriageworks. Making partnerships, meetings, art installations and MAAS centres appear to be the core activities. The two pages on key achievements for the year have fewer highlights than many regional museums.
Which is what the museum will become if it goes to Parramatta.

For more on the Sydney Modern development see Judith White’s provocative Culture Heist blog. Comments on the Sydney Modern state significant DA close on the 15th of December.