Are bricks and mortar necessary to building culture?

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Gina Fairley

Australia’s cultural sector is in a building boom. A recent SAMAG panel, however, discussed the realities of mounting a redevelopment, asking how important are costly consultants, the need for Master planning and post-build sustainability?
Are bricks and mortar necessary to building culture?

Blak Box, Urban Theatre Projects; image courtesy UTP. Photo credit: Barton Taylor

Australia’s cultural sector appears to be in a building frenzy, with multi-million dollar projects being rolled out everywhere from state cultural institutions to regional arts organisations – all with the desire to build capacity.

And while other organisations may not yet have signed off on a project of their own, many dreams wait in the wings as the reality of building sustainability sits forefront for arts organisations today.


The question is whether they need bricks and mortar to “build culture”? How does a cultural organisation determine and translate its future needs into hard infrastructure, and can that be achieved through other modes of operation, such as expanding partnerships?

These and other questions were at the heart of a panel discussed hosted by SAMAG, which ArtsHub had the pleasure of chairing.

How to decide when it is the right time to build?

Most cultural organisations recognise their need to expand, whether it be for collection storage, a café, additional theatre or rehearsal spaces, the needs are clear and often pressing.

However, evaluating that spend against the resulting increased pressure on resources, such as staff and operational funding, is a very difficult ask. Organisations are left with the question: can we really afford to do this? Or do we just have to bite the bullet to stay competitive?

And when is the right time?

Rosie Dennis, CEO/Artistic Director, Urban Theatre Projects (UTP) located in Western Sydney said: ‘I ask “when?” all the time, and the answer changes all the time ... We are situated between Blacktown and Bankstown, we are wanting to grow!’

UTP draws upon a 30-year lineage of distinctive new theatre works based on a process of dialogue between contemporary theatre practice and diverse communities.

Dennis feels that “competition” in this building boom is a good thing. ‘I don’t think we need to worry about competition because what we are all doing is different, and because more of us are out there talking about what we are doing, it shows that it’s an urgent need.’

Karyn Ford has been at the heart of a regional cultural redevelopment project, first working for Albury City Council as the  Albury Regional Art Gallery was transformed into Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA).

Now Director of MAMA, she has brought her strong practical and fiscal approach to the ongoing sustainability and success of the museum.

For her the question of “when” for Council run institutions comes back to the community.

‘The gallery was not up to standard – our previous building did not have a lift for example – so it was the community that identified there was a massive need to do this redevelopment.’

Russell Briggs answered the question of “when” more directly: ‘I would guess whenever the government might give you money is the right time to do it.’

Briggs is the Director, Engagement, Exhibitions & Cultural Connection, Australian Museum and is currently spear-heading the barrabuwari muru master plan launched in 2016 a $250+ million redevelopment project – which has been rescaled and phased to meet the realities of delivery.

He joined the Museum in September last year, and comes to Sydney after five years at the Auckland Museum (2007-2012) and five years at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne (2012-17), both roles included working on  infrastructure projects.

Briggs said: ‘Martin Roth, then Director of the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) visited me when I was working at ACMI. He said if you are a museum director in this world right now – today – if you don’t have a bid in for hundreds of millions of dollars with your government, then you are insane.’

He continued: ‘It is opportunistic idea try to expand whenever you think it is possible to expand, because there will be long periods when it is impossible.’

Dennis said that UTP is currently existing without a lease at one of its venues, with the uncertainty of month-to-month operations.

‘We have been looking for a different home now since I have been with organisation – six years ... For us it is more about where? Over that time, I’ve been told repeatedly, by multiple members of state government, that we don’t ask for enough [money] to be taken seriously.

She continued: ‘We need a big ask, like $50 million, but then we find ourselves having to demonstrate our capacity to manage $50 million, and that is very challenging for a small organisation like ours because we are not at same level of resources as the Australian Museum.’

How relevant is Master Planning, and how flexible should it be?

For anyone who has taken on a building project – personally or professionally – they know that things don’t always go as planned. However, when cultural organisations enter into the domain of expanding their infrastructure or taking on a redevelopment – “the plan” is critical when dealing with government partners and public funds.

How flexible, then, can that Masterplan be, and how long is it relevant when planning a build for an organisation?

The current redevelopment in track at the Australian Museum, started out as ‘quite grand and in hundreds of millions’ said Briggs, but has recalibrated to match the realities of a broader zeitgeist.

He explained: ‘[Our Director Kim Mackay] realised at a certain point that the original ask that the museum had originally conceived – at the mid-$300 million mark – was too much for what the NSW government was able to bare at that time, given other commitments made such as Walsh Bay Precinct and Sydney Modern, among others. So the opportunity came to split the Masterplan into phases.

‘She went for first phase to create an exhibition space in the centre of Sydney to accommodate big touring exhibitions, the likes of which could not have been taken to Sydney before and were gong to the Melbourne Museum instead, so the impetus for government was a very sexy vision.’

Briggs added: ‘The Masterplan development – in a very loose way – had to be put aside and a new Masterplan developed for a $57 million project, $7million of which will have to be raised by us.’

Read: A $50 million date with Tutankhamun

What Briggs spoke around was both the saturation point on available funds and donor fatigue, and ensuring that your ask is realistic in the early stages of planning.

Do you need to engage consultants to build capacity?

Specialist consultants are expensive when writing infrastructure and development Masterplans, but the reality is that they can offer that much needed “foot up”, to help you  get the language right, so your proposal project will get on the table for consideration.

Is the spend necessary, and how do arts organisations ensure that these consultants reflect and understand their unique expansion needs?

Briggs has worked with a lot of consultants in Australia and New Zealand. He said: ‘For us as cultural organisations, it’s very difficult to write a proper Masterplan without someone coming in to help. Someone needs to come in from a museum design perspective and be the bridge between what you want to do, and what your architects want to do, and the language needed to present that to government.’

He continued: ‘At ACMI the government gave us the money to write the business case. There are companies around Australia that specialise in writing business cases that government will consider. They structure the cost benefit ratio for you, and get all the language around it right, and that is a skill that costs about $100,000.’

Briggs spoke of a video documentary produced about the 10-year building project for the Royal Ontario Museum – The Museum – which he described as demonstrating ‘every nightmare you could imagine with a museum project going wrong.'

He added: ‘Getting good consultants and tightness around your project is important.’

Ford agreed that even at a regional or small organisation perspective, consultants are key in bridging that gap. She said that being a Council run organisations that it largely utilised city staff, who were quiet well versed and knowledgeable but did not have that specialist gallery perspective.

Dennis continued: ‘They are a necessary evil in building a great museum or cultural institution.’

Dennis, however, had seen in the development of the Western Sydney cultural landscape, the assigning of multiple consultants for the same project where duplication on large fees was put up front, and then no money flows through on the delivery of the concept.

‘That is dispiriting when you are trying to wrangle investment in a cultural program outside of bricks and mortar,’ she added.

Advice for working with governments and councils when building culture

Any redevelopment or major capital works/infrastructure project requires dealing with government on multiple levels. This can be a minefield of regulations, protocols, DAs and building compliances on top of funding guidelines and strategic channels to pitch and network for a project’s “green light”.

Ford simple advised – having worked on both sides of this gamut – to ‘make sure you gather all the information and facts before you submit your proposal. And ask lots of questions – that is why those council official are there, and the more you connect with them the more they are on top of your vision.’

Ford said they had requested $3.5 million both in state and federal funding, of which the NSW state government so no to.

‘Being a council run institution we had the added complexity of council determining whether we could go ahead without that money in place. We got a petition together of 5,000 signatures to say that we wanted to go ahead, and the NSW government still gave no support, so we went back to Council to fund the museum,’ explained Ford.

After a two-year consultation period, the council agreed to contribute $6m, with the remaining $1m to be raised from philanthropy, most of the 25 donations, totalling $1.34m, came from local sources.

What the MAMA story demonstrates is the that such projects are a long run, and require a relay team to maintain “the sell”.

How hard is it to the maintain the energy to “sell” the project?

Art Patron Simon Mordant has been quoted as saying the hardest part of fund raising for the new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (which opened 2012), was losing the couple of stone in weight put on from all the “schmoozing” to sell the concept and raise the funds.

Deacon agreed that that role of selling is part of your job as the Director of an organisation. ‘It is the reality of the job, and if you love the job and the organisation, then it is really easy.’

She relayed the anecdote that a philanthropist said to her – when fundraising for their Blak Box surround sound performance pavilion – that if she could confirm an architect and raise the whole amount for the building, he would give $5,000.

‘Another said we would donate $2,000 because we know you will do a lot with it rather than a bigger institution it will just get sucked in. There is a perception that $2,000 will change our life, but it just won’t. We need to shift that narrative around this. We need philanthropists to think that they could give us – smaller organisations – $50,000 and we would still do more with it than a major because we don’t have the overheads.’

‘I spend a lot of my time just explaining that we do deliver and that we are not going to lose their money.’

Dennis continued: ‘A tipping point for us smaller organisations it is getting a project over the line, and that is where it is hard heavy lifting as you simply don’t have the resources that the bigger orgs do. I have an excellent Board and I bring them along with me all the time just to try and fake it that we are bigger than we are. A lot of it is to demonstrating capacity.’

Built done … now how to sustain programming

The aspect of building culture that is less discussed is sustainability post-project – that one year, two years, five years down the track and the pinch of expanded programming demands on physical resources, as well as increased operational costs.

Ford reported that MAMA’s capacity to self-generate income had arisen out of their expanded operations.

‘27% of our budget is now self-generating revenue. From a sustainability perspective we have a fantastic gallery store, a restaurant lease, and education sector engagement.’

Briggs makes the point that the sustainability of a building project is entirely predicated on being able to run the space later on. ‘It is a bad position to be in to have to go back and ask for more money to run the thing later on.

He continued: ‘Governments like to fund shiny new projects – that is money for a big project is something they feel adds to the lustre of the city and the state. They don’t tend to give you operating money to run the fancy thing you got money to build.’

The panel also discussed the recent funding announcement of the $498 million Australia War Memorial re-development in Canberra, which multiple other cultural organisations across the capital city have had to face rigorous funding cuts in the name of “efficiency dividends”, including the reduction in staff and programs. 

Building Culture was presented by SAMAG at the Australia Council for the Arts on 5 November, 2018.

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years.

She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW, and you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.