The relocation of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is set to become a major fault-line in next month’s NSW election after the Greens, Shooters and Fishers, and Labor joined forces to deliver a scathing report of the government’s plan to move it to Parramatta.
The parliamentary upper house committee has recommended the museum should be “restored to its former glory” at its current site in Ultimo through a significant injection of funds. It argues this would lead to greater patronage and that the government business case for moving it was “inadequate” and did not consider the option of leaving it at the current site.
The chairman of the committee, Greens MP David Shoebridge, said the move would be a disaster.
“We’re calling for a major investment in the Powerhouse museum. Parramatta should get its own iconic cultural institution that reflects its Aboriginal, colonial and migration history,” he said.
The report says: “Parramatta deserves a world-class museum that all of Sydney, in fact all of NSW and Australia, can get behind and support. Tragically, through political manoeuvring and sheer bloody-mindedness, the current proposal fails to achieve this.”
Shoebridge said: “This was always about a property deal pretending to be about cultural institutions.”
The Berejiklian government has proposed to move the Powerhouse to Parramatta and is likely to sell large parts of the Ultimo site for redevelopment, with the exception of the original power station building, which it has said will become a museum of fashion.
It would move the Powerhouse collection to a new museum at Parramatta, to be partially funded by a 60-storey apartment development on the site near the Parramatta river.
The NSW government continuedto push ahead with its plan on Thursday by announcing three more members of the design jury for the new precinct. The panel is chaired by the businesswoman and art entrepreneur Naomi Milgrom and will include American architect, Jeanne Gang, designer of Chicago’s Aqua tower.
“This poorly informed decision was made before a preliminary business case had even been prepared,” Shoebridge said.
The government fought orders from the upper house to release the final business case, leading to a tussle over whether it constituted a cabinet document. In the end the government chose to release it.
The committee found that the final business case did not comply with the NSW Treasury’s own guide to cost-benefit analysis. It did not consider the status quo option and it looked at patronage figures from a single month – July 2017.
The committee obtained a 2014 business case by Ernst and Young that looked at seven options and found that relocation of the museum would have adverse effects on international, national and local patronage, and “was not a viable project option”.
It also warned of a public backlash because of the museum’s important historical connection with the Ultimo and Pyrmont area.
Labor has said it will keep the museum at Ultimo and invest $500m in a new cultural institution at Parramatta.
The report is also highly critical of the Powerhouse’s controversial Fashion Ball, held in February 2018, a disastrous fundraiser that the report says cost $388,391 but raised just over $70,000. There were also reports of a wild after-party in the director’s suite. The director of the museum, Dolla Merrillees, did not reapply for her position and left in mid 2018.
The committee said it heard from numerous witnesses that the Powerhouse had been neglected since the relocation was announced in 2015.
It found that both management and the board of trustees had “lost their way” and the museum was not performing to the high standard it once did. It said the NSW government had used the museum’s decline inappropriately to bolster its case.