Labor’s policy position on museum gives voters a clear choice

Labor has opened up a new election battlefront in its promise to build a $500 million stand-alone museum in western Sydney and injecting $45 million to renovate the Powerhouse Museum and keep it at Ultimo.

Like its stand to overturn stadium demolitions, Opposition Leader Michael Daley has sought to characterise the Berejiklian government's plans to relocate the Powerhouse Museum as one driven by property developers and a wrecking ball mentality while announcing a series of arts spending promises worth more than $800 million.

The Powerhouse Museum will remain in Ultimo if Labor win government at the next state election.Credit:Jessica Hromas

Under Labor, a new dedicated cultural institution would be located on the same Parramatta Riverside site where the government intends relocating the Museum of Applied Arts and Science at a capital cost of $1.17 billion (the long-running upper house inquiry estimates total cost at $1.5 billion or more).

Its identity would be decided after consultation with the people of western Sydney, with at least one local action group on Sunday backing a museum celebrating the state's Indigenous and migrant past.

Labor said it would continue with plans to redevelop the Riverside Theatre and preserve the North Parramatta heritage precinct which includes the Parramatta Female Factory and pursue World Heritage listing for this important area, as well as protect the historic properties of Willowgrove and St George’s Terrace in Parramatta – which have formed some of the more controversial ''devil in the detail'' of Arts Minister Don Harwin's ambitious plans for western Sydney.

At Ultimo, the government has still to prove it can make the sums add up: building an arts and cultural precinct worthy of New York's Meat Packing district, inclusive of a lyric theatre and fashion and design museum, and yet not swamped by the residential tower developments which will underwrite it.

That draft business case is underway and due to report before the election. But the revaluation of the Ultimo site upwards by $220 million ahead of the attraction's planned sell-off has triggered alarm bells that the only way the site's value can be maximised is to be sold off with as few conditions as possible. In which case, those plans for a ''vibrant art and cultural hub'' get scaled down to a Lyric Theatre with a few showroom tenants.

Labor's policy position has been welcomed by the vociferous proponents of the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo who now see a clear voters' choice between saving a cultural institution and its world-renowned collection and having ''wreckers on the site and 70 storey towers all over'', as former trustee Kylie Winkworth puts it.

Among some western Sydney cultural and business players that supported the Powerhouse's move west, Labor's $500 million museum will be regarded as a triumph of entrenched cultural elitism with no proper redress to historic public funding inequities in western Sydney.

For Michael Dagostino, director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, it's a win-win for western Sydney either way: with the Powerhouse or with a state cultural institution of its own.

Housing the majority of Sydney’s population, the region deserves a cultural institution with an extensive collection and major exhibition program, Dagostino says. So long as the new cultural institution’s curatorial thinking happens in western Sydney and it never becomes a satellite for a cultural institution elsewhere.

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