Powerhouse Museum may be split, with fashion and design kept in Sydney's CBD

Sydney Morning Herald
Published May 17, 2016 - Andrew Taylor, Deputy Arts Editor

SMH_Powerhouse_17May16.pngThe Powerhouse Museum may not move its entire collection to Parramatta, with a senior NSW bureaucrat suggesting the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences could find a site in Sydney's CBD for fashion and design exhibitions and programs.
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Greens MP Jamie Parker said: "The documents show confusion, secrecy and contradiction in relation to the future location, continuity and purpose of the Powerhouse Museum.

"These documents reveal that the proposed sale is simply a real estate deal that will only deliver an underfunded and inferior version of the current Powerhouse," he added. "Together with the community, I remain resolved to oppose this wasteful, destructive plan."

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The then secretary of the Department of Trade and Investment, Mark Paterson, told the museum's board of trustees that "there may be opportunities to negotiate a secondary site in the CBD", according to the minutes of a board meeting in March 2015.

This suggestion is backed by former trustee and arts patron, Gene Sherman, who told Fairfax Media in April that a "second modest site in a refurbished city building should be found to host fashion shows".

The Powerhouse's fashion and decorative arts collection could also be handed to another cultural institution.

However, a new CBD site for the Powerhouse would appear to be at odds with later advice from Matt Crocker, an arts advisor to Premier Mike Baird, who is noted as saying "the Premier is 100 per cent focused on relocating all of the Powerhouse to Parramatta".

Paterson also told the board that, in his view, it would be "counterproductive" to fight the NSW government's plan to relocate the Powerhouse to Parramatta, which includes selling off the museum's Ultimo site.

His warning was issued to the board at its March meeting just weeks before the state election last year.

Paterson said it was not appropriate for MAAS to have a role in the sale of the Powerhouse's Ultimo site, which could happen before the move to Parramatta.

He suggested the museum would then lease back the site from its new owners.

"It is anticipated the sale would be managed by Government Property NSW, and be determined by the site's highest and best use with emphasis on maximising the commercial return to government," the minutes said.

The minutes of MAAS board meetings are among documents obtained by Fairfax Media under Freedom of Information laws.

The documents also include minutes of meetings, between December 2014 and January 2016, of committees steering the controversial project. They provide a partial view of the complexities and cost of building a new museum, moving MAAS' vast collection and the future of the Ultimo site. 

The documents also reveal the urgency involved in executing the NSW government's plans following the 2015 state election, with many meetings dominated by bureaucrats from Treasury, Government Property NSW, Infrastructure NSW and Premier and Cabinet,

However, a number of documents relating to the Powerhouse's controversial relocation to Parramatta were withheld or redacted, including a report into museum requirements by Root Projects Australia, KPMG's feasibility study and New York-based AEA Consulting's development of a "Vision" for the project.

The documents indicate uncertainty over the cost of relocating the Powerhouse to Parramatta, while vocal opposition to the museum's move is noted as a risk to the project.

Initially, it appears the move would be paid for by the sale of the Powerhouse's Ultimo site, with no additional funds from the $600 million cultural infrastructure fund, according to the minutes of a board meeting in December 2014.

Various documents suggest the Ultimo site was worth as little as $130 million up to $250 million, depending on its final use and conditions of sale.

The MAAS board was told in July 2015 that the overall cost of relocating to Parramatta was estimated at $450 to $500 million, suggesting a shortfall in funding for the project.

It is generally believed the site's new owners would develop high-rise residential buildings, but there is speculation, denied by the internet giant, that Google could choose the Ultimo site to house its new headquarters instead of White Bay.

The site for the new museum on the Parramatta River is smaller than the Powerhouse Museum's Ultimo site, "but represents a more efficient use of space", according to the minutes of a board meeting in December 2015.

Greens MP Jamie Parker said: "The documents show confusion, secrecy and contradiction in relation to the future location, continuity and purpose of the Powerhouse Museum.

"These documents reveal that the proposed sale is simply a real estate deal that will only deliver an underfunded and inferior version of the current Powerhouse," he added. "Together with the community, I remain resolved to oppose this wasteful, destructive plan," 

A spokesman for the deputy Premier and Arts Minister, Troy Grant, said the sale of the Powerhouse' Ultimo site would be managed by Property NSW as with all sales of government property.

"With the new Parramatta site now selected we're able to complete the final business case that will include the project cost and how it will be funded," he said. "The final business case is due to be completed by the end of the year."

Read more on Jamie Parker's work to save the Powerhouse


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