The Age/SMH “Neglect of our cultural heritage
Michael Bachelard, Neglect of our cultural heritage will be to the nation’s peril, The Age, 13 December 2022
Australia’s ability to learn from its past and its rich reserves of history, art and culture has quietly eroded.
The financial neglect of the National Gallery of Australia not only threatens the nation’s prized $6.2 billion collection that includes treasures like Blue Poles, but is an assault on our social fabric and diverse cultural identity.
This gross neglect of the NGA is not isolated. The budgets of other major collecting institutions including the National Archives, the National Library, the Portrait Gallery and Maritime Museum, keepers of precious records of our history, culture and collective memory, have also deteriorated.
The operational funding for these institutions has been eroding at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic upended their capacity to raise more money to contribute to their running costs. They are all subject to an Australian public service-wide efficiency dividend and a further government savings measure, introduced in 2015-16 that now sits at 1 per cent since July this year.
That the NGA should be left to manage leaks to its roof and windows signals an appalling indifference to the nation’s custodianship of collections that represent our deep cultural and historical connections with Aboriginal Australia and the modern world. Not to mention the economic investment in the country’s most valuable public-funded art collection.
As our arts writer Linda Morris reports, the NGA is headed for a financial cliff next year and contemplating drastic measures including forced redundancies, closure two days a week and the possible reintroduction of entry fees. It also faces a $265 million funding shortfall over the next 10 years to upgrade and waterproof its leaky 40-year-old building.
The Age’s repeated freedom of information requests to obtain a KPMG review into the financial sustainability of all national collecting institutions including the Australian National Maritime Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Library and the NGA, have been rejected on the basis that it was a document prepared for cabinet. This document needs to be released as a matter of public interest to keep the Office for the Arts accountable and transparent in its administration.
Last year, the federal government was forced to spend $67.7 million to rescue almost 300,000 pieces of Australian history including wartime radio recordings of former prime minister John Curtin, a petition to King George V for Indigenous representation in federal parliament, tapes of the Stolen Generation royal commission and records of the Bounty mutineers held in the National Archives. More money is still needed to protect other valuable documents, recordings and images held in the archive which was pushed to the brink of collapse by years of underfunding and staff cuts.
Nicola Laurent, president of the Australian Society of Archivists, rightly raised the alarm about important records being put at risk. She said the National Archives should never have been put in a position where the materials desperately needed saving. The Age agrees with Laurent that loss of these records would be devastating to the nation’s memory and history. The same would apply to collections held in the NGA and other collection institutions.
In his letter to the new arts minister Tony Burke, NGA board chairman Ryan Stokes foreshadowed a budget crunch in June 2023 when a short-term funding injection of $24.77 million ends. He said years of efficiency dividend measures adversely impacted the gallery’s operations, stripping out over 10 years some $6.2 million in funding to stage exhibitions and programs.
He called for urgent consideration and provision of “sufficient funding to address the instability and uncertainty”. The Age backs this urgent call for more funding.
Independent senator David Pocock has also called for an urgent response to the problem. He points out that the National Gallery manages the most valuable collection in the country, “one that helps to tell the story of us and our evolving culture”. As he says, it belongs to all of us, and it does little good if it can’t be preserved, curated, exhibited or made available to the Australians who pay for it.
Writing in The Age recently, historians Michelle Arrow and Frank Bongiorno astutely observed that as the tide washes out on the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison era, “it is clear that the real history war is the long war on our libraries and archives. Its full effects are only now hitting home”.
The nation’s treatment of the NGA and other national collection institutions which capture the diversity of Australian stories is representative of its vision of itself. Diplomacy is one thing, but policymakers also need to take more care in how we project Australia’s place in world culture to our citizens and the global community.