The Weekly Notebook – Sydney Modern: how not to build an art gallery

Sydney Modern: A case study of how not to build an art gallery

Ask anyone with any knowledge of the arts in NSW and you will discover an almost unanimous view that the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney’s Domain needs major renovation and upgrading.

Everybody agrees with the proposition that the dear old 19th century building with its sandstone pillars and Gothic friezes is a tad worn out.

I have keenly followed the birth of the Sydney Modern Project through my partner Judith White, a former Art Gallery Society executive director, who has written a book on the subject, Culture Heist: Art versus Money, and spent years researching the history of public galleries here and overseas. Check out Judith’s book here.

Her views have never been dogmatic but very persuasive. As a result, I have become an ardent supporter of her concerns about Sydney Modern and her passionate belief in wider and broader consultation taking pride of place over corporate vanity and political breast-beating.

The wish list put forward by AGNSW supporters is not outlandish and is, I believe, very practical. They want more exhibition space, extra car parking facilities, a covered walkway to the Gallery entrance, the hiring of trained and qualified curators, additional resources for the library and bookshop and the restitution of an independent and vigorous Art Gallery Society to build community support and additional finance for the Gallery’s acquisition programme.

The AGNSW  – mecca for art lovers

Achieving these modest reforms requires the support of a board of trustees who are committed to the ethos of providing public cultural life. This means creating a board of art lovers, art administrators, art scholars, professional specialists in law and business and community representatives.

This requires a complete reversal of present government policy of a “captain’s pick” favouring corporate hacks and bigtime donors to major political parties.

The era of social and environmental vandals from the major banks, developers, breweries, casinos and the gaming lobby running art institutions is over. As the banking and financial services Royal Commission has shown, the CBD’s focus is on the “bottom line” whereas the arts need board members with an eye on the “top line” – imagination, scholarship and education. And most importantly of all, a commitment to keep the AGNSW free of charge and open to all.

Recent revelations about the utterly shambolic board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) are further evidence of the disastrous consequences of appointing political stooges to the top of Australia’s cultural institutions.

Regrettably, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Cabinet is rushing full steam ahead with a catastrophic plan to turn the AGNSW into Sydney Modern at an initial cost to taxpayers of $344 million. I suspect the completion cost will be hundreds of millions of dollars more. Then future State Budgets will be hit by recurrent spending: covering the cost of maintenance, electricity, cleaning, security and insurance. The recurrent budget will take millions away from more urgently needed social projects for years to come.

Bonfire of the vanities

The Sydney Modern Project is such a disaster that it will be studied for years ahead by academics and students. It will become an object lesson in how NOT to undertake an art gallery project.

Under the guise of “improving” the present gallery, the promoters of Sydney Modern are creating a giant glass and steel venue for corporate events capitalising on Harbour views. You know the kind of thing it will be used for: champagne and canapés for Westfield directors and shareholders, private weddings for Eastern Suburbs tax dodgers and birthday parties for commercial radio broadcasters and their shady “pick and stick” mates.

David Gonski, AGNSW president  and ANZ Bank chair, with Arts Minister Don Harwin

A list of the Government’s breathtaking failures with Sydney Modern starts with the secrecy surrounding the whole project. The final estimated cost has never been given; the Cabinet process has been kept secret, except for sanctioned “leaks” to the Sydney Morning Herald, one of the gallery’s “partners”; inquiries from concerned MPs at State Parliament have been imperiously brushed aside; and public money has been spent on AGNSW executives, airline travel and exorbitantly paid consultants.

If the main aim was to provide more exhibition space for the gallery, the Government could have made the Land Titles building or the Chief Secretaries building on Macquarie Street available, instead of rushing to sell off more of Sydney’s heritage.

As the next State Election draws closer (March 20, 2019) the Coalition Government has stepped up its arm-twisting and coercion for its madcap projects, including Sydney Modern, transfer of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, the building of massive sports stadiums at Moore Park and Olympic Park, the cross-Sydney WestConnex motorway, the cash-burning Sydney City light rail network and the rebirthing of greyhound racing with vast government subsidies.

At the AGNSW, while key staff departments have been subject to redundancies and outsourcing, trusted senior executives have been given expense accounts, bonuses and privileges (days off and international trips) to secure their loyalty.

Former critics have been bought off with promises of well-paid contracts to give “advice”. Others have been worn down and unplatformed: no more invitations to openings and special events until they sign up for the Sydney Modern monstrosity. It is pure thuggery hidden inside a silk glove.

Each individual must make up his or her mind whether to be a refusenik or a facilitator. It is a matter of conscience; and it does not make one person superior to the other.

For me, the AGNSW is a cathedral full of wondrous art and the adjacent Royal Botanic Gardens is a place of Nature and reflection. I can’t bear to see a second-rate bunch of Liberal and National Party politicians trash them both. I won’t be compromising, thank you. As Mrs Margaret Thatcher told a Tory Party conference in 1980: “I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’.” Neither is this gentleman.

Trump’s border crisis

People watching the migrant crisis at the border between the United States and Mexico will be appalled by the inhuman cruelty of President Donald Trump as he deploys troops, tear gas, armed police and border guards to block the path of these “poor and huddles masses”.

A minority will approve. They are the supporters of Australia’s former Immigration Ministers Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, former British Home Secretaries Theresa May and Amber Rudd, French President Emmanuel Macron, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.

Americans seem blissfully unaware that the chief author of this human tragedy is Bill Clinton, 42nd US president from 1993 to 2001. As grass roots funding for the Democratic Party began to dry up from the 1980s (the Reagan era), Clinton decided to renew the party’s “base”.

Bill Clinton: as President, he peddled NAFTA as the way to limit immigration

“Clinton argued that the party had to ditch labor unions, no longer of votes or power, as a political ally,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote in Empire of Illusion. “Workers, he insisted, would vote Democrat anyway. They had no choice.”

Clinton convinced the Democratic Party leaders to take corporate money and do corporate bidding. By the 1990s, the Democratic Party had virtual fund-raising parity with the Republicans. Today the Democrats raise more.

Enter “Slick Willy”

According to Hedges, this is the background to Clinton’s dramatic shift in support of a free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. The corporate big donors demanded a transactional price for their support, and they received it in the form of legislation to create a free trade zone between America’s two neighbours, Canada and Mexico.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was born in 1994 with immense publicity and a slick advertising campaign.

“NAFTA was peddled by the Clinton White House as an opportunity to raise the incomes and prosperity of the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico,” wrote Hedges, adding: “NAFTA would also, we were told, staunch Mexican immigration into the United States. ‘There will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home’,” President Clinton said in the spring of 1993 as he was lobbying for the bill.

But NAFTA had the effect of reversing every one of Clinton’s rosy predictions. Once the Mexican government lifted price supports on corn and beans grown by Mexican farmers, those farmers had to compete against the huge agribusinesses in the US. Many Mexican farmers were swiftly bankrupted. At least two million have been driven off their land since 1994. And guess where many of them went? This desperate flight of poor Mexicans into the US is now being exacerbated by large-scale factory closures along the border as manufacturers pack up and leave Mexico for the cut-rate embrace of China’s totalitarian capitalism.

“But we were assured that goods would be cheaper. Workers would be wealthier. Everyone would be happier,” wrote Hedges. “I am not sure how these contradictory things were supposed to happen, but in a sound-bite society, reality no longer matters. NAFTA was great if you were a corporation. It was disaster it you were a worker.”

Any lessons for post-Brexit Britain and Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise of a reborn Rule Britannia? Or Australians liberated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ticket to a heavenly “free market” where housing and energy will be cheap as chips? Think about it.

Introducing Pastor Scott Morrison

Australian politics have entered a very weird and scary place with the unpredictability of Pentecostal happy-clappy Scott Morrison as Prime Minister.

Few Australians are interested in religion as a result of the country’s pagan indigenous origins, post-colonial secularism and the ugly stain of Catholic-Protestant bigotry which was rampant in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Morrison has arrived in office with a mission to serve god. He sees himself as the servant of god and his decisions are derived from god.

PM Scott Morrison: man on a mission

And it came to pass that Morrison this week waved his hand and closed down parliament for all but a few days between now and the Federal Budget in April next year. Parliament will be suspended again for a Federal Election and will not resume until August.

Labor has calculated that MPs will sit for 13 days before the Federal Budget to avoid scrutiny and to protect the Government’s minority status. Labor also contends that Parliament will only sit for 10 days in the first eight months of 2019.

Throughout this flagrant dereliction of duty, MPs will remain on full pay and full perks even though they will rarely be in attendance at the workplace.

Morrison’s timetable was approved by 72 votes to 71 even though he now heads a minority government. Why wasn’t the schedule of sittings voted down? Because Bob Katter, the North Queensland “independent”, ratted and voted with the Liberals and Nationals.

Ruled by a happy-clapper

Far more significant than Julie Bishop’s red high-heeled shoes is the fact that Australia has its first Christian Zionist prime minister. These rabid right-wing evangelists from the US, Australia and  South Africa are more Zionist than the Zionists themselves.

Hillsong, the money-grubbing Pentecostal sect to which Morrison belongs, is affiliated to Australian Christian Churches, the Australian franchise of America’s Assemblies of God.

Pentecostal believers have services in which they talk to each other in “tongues”. They take as gospel truth that  Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jews; that Christ will return to earth bringing salvation to “national Israel” and universal peace; that non-believers will be raised from the dead and subjected to “the final judgement” and the dire punishment of “fire and brimstone”.

Morrison’s boast

Because Australians hold religious freedom so passionately as a legal and moral right, very few people wish to discuss Morrison’s religious views. So be it, but I hope that people will give me the right to disagree and point out the barmy implications of a PM guided by the word of god and his utter refusal to take advice from the voting public.

This is man of great complexity who lives in a narrow world of certitudes. He shuns formality, stiff ceremony and show. He is a backyard barbecue man rather than a banquet one. He would never donate his shoes to be put on show at a state exhibition. He is blokey when being called a “good bloke” is the equivalent of being called out.

On the other hand, he is crushingly self-righteous, impervious to other people’s injustices and blind to any feelings of self-doubt. He believes in force, whether it is military, bureaucratic or judicial, to settle annoying disputes: he showed these “law’n’order” colours as Tourism Minister, Immigration Minister and Treasurer.

He likes people and craves their adoration but he doesn’t really care whether they like him or not. His primary mission is to serve god and serving people is a secondary consideration. His overriding dream is to shed Australia’s history as a secular nation and turn it into a Christian one.

When the penny eventually drops in the multi-faith Liberal Party and the multi-cultural electorate, Morrison’s time in The Lodge will end in tears.

Murdering the English language

My current beef with modish usage of English is reporters who say or write that “the real heroes of today’s tragedy were the first responders”.

What is a “first responder”? Why not simply say “the real heroes of today’s tragedy were the police, ambulance and fire brigade”? They are the “first responders” and we used to name them in our despatches. Often we would include the helicopter rescue service or the rural fire service if they took part.

Soon there will be a sacred monument to “first responders” followed by a “Premier’s First Responder Award”, a set of “first responder” postage stamps, a First Responder Wall of Remembrance in the Botanic Gardens and a “First Responder Room” with paintings by Ben Quilty at the Art Gallery of NSW.

But my complaint seems trivial compared to some of the jargon-filled rubbish composed by PR consultants hired by governments to sell a “message” or a promote a “perception”.

My eye caught this one issued in Britain, the home of double-speak, issued to doctors by a new-fangled bureaucracy called National Health Service Quality. It reads:

“As you will hopefully be aware, the Beta phase of the DPSIMS project to upgrade the NRLS and STEIS with a single new user-friendly and learning-focused digital service is well underway.

“During Beta, we build on our learning from Alpha, and work towards delivering a functional first version of the system. A message has gone out today in the NHS Provider Bulletin asking Chief Execs, Chairs and Directors of Quality Nursing and Medicine to lend their support to expressions of interest in becoming Private Beta pilot sites. There is more information that the task and timelines, the selection process, and the benefits of participation here.

“As our core group of day-to-day project contacts, we wanted to ensure you were also aware that this opportunity is now open, so that you can have conversations with the relevant people within provider organisations to decide if piloting is something they wish to support.

“There will be challenges and uncertainty in the work – as you know, the agile development process is iterative and very responsive to user feedback, so while we can plan what we want to achieve, it will be your input that forges the path to get us where we need to be, and so some aspect like timescales, resources and effort required will only become clear once we get started.

“Expressions of interest will require senior-level backing, but we know that this group is where we will find our shop-floor champions.”

My thanks to medical columnist, Dr Theodore Dalrymple, for supplying the medical circular.

Macbloodsucking Macbank

The appearance of Macquarie Bank CEO and chairman Nicholas Moore at the Banking and Financial Services Royal Commission was treated by the media as something akin to the Second Coming.
Nicholas Moore of Macquarie Group – also chair of the Sydney Opera House Trust

He was more than mere royalty, he was a messiah. Like Julius Caesar, he came, he saw and he conquered. Not since billionaire Kerry Packer silenced a Senate committee two decades ago with his blunt approval of tax evasion, oops tax minimisation [think bottom of the harbour], has the press loved a witness so much.

Moore’s bank, aka “the millionaires’ factory”, is a blood-sucking operation whose business model is simple: get the state to pay all the cash in building public-private partnerships (PPPs), then we take them over and unload them, making a vast profit for our executive team and shareholders.

I am reminded of a study by US psychologist Robert Hare who created a checklist of traits exhibited by corporate psychopaths:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships;
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of others;
  • Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning of others for profit;
  • Incapacity to experience guilt;
  • Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviour.

Sounds like many in today’s Liberal and National parties as well.

Recalling the Day of Infamy

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by Governor-General Sir John Kerr with the agreement of Queen Elizabeth II on 11 November 1975.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the day of The Dismissal, 11 November 1975

Whitlam christened it as the “Day of Infamy” and asked Australians “to maintain the rage”. Some did, but most didn’t as the date was overwhelmed by commemorations marking Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day, when World War One ended.

Whitlam was philosophical about the deteriorating concern for The Dismissal but during the 1990s he hosted a lunch for friends and colleagues from the Whitlam era. They were magical occasions for storytelling and reminiscing amid gales of laughter.

One story sticks in my mind. Some bright spark in the Prime Minister’s Office decided to phone Buckingham Palace on the evening of Whitlam’s sacking to inform the Queen, she being Australia’s head of state. It was around 6pm in Canberra and, because of the time difference, about 7am in London. When QE2 eventually came on the line, he told her: “I wish to report to your majesty that Whitlam is out and Fraser is in.” Mrs Windsor frostily replied: “You call me at this hour of morning to tell me the cricket score?”

Donald Trump’s gut-meter

“I’m not happy with the Fed [US Federal Reserve Board, America’s central bank]. They’re making a mistake [with low interest rates] because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell them.”

– President Donald Trump, leader of the Free World, interviewed by The Washington Post, 28 November 2018


  1. Good, NO Great to be “in touch” again. There’s no second-guessing your place on the Oz political spectrum! Though somewhat to the left of mine, your ‘copy’ is crisp and lucid. I want more and please keep me ‘copied’.
    Best Regards to YOU & your partner, Judith Wright.
    Your Secular, Republican Friend, PETER CONSANDINE

  2. Jeez Alex why didn’t you say the AGNSW was just round the corner when I stayed with you in Wooloomooloo? We didn’t get any further than the pub 😉

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