‘That is not the limit of my ambition’: One-on-one with the Arts Minister

ArtsHub sat down this week with NSW Minister for the Arts Don Harwin in a checklist conversation that tackled funding, priorities and vision.
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NSW Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin visiting artist studios this week at the National Art School, Darlinghurst; Photo: Adam Hollingworth

Vision statements in politics, while well intentioned, can often come across as mere rhetoric. Scouting the arts sector before our meeting with the NSW Minister for the Arts, the shared opinion seemed to be that Don Harwin had a ‘genuine interest in the arts’. It perked our interest.

This is a Minister who, in just 12 months, has dealt with some of the most contentious decisions surrounding the State’s arts and culture infrastructure, and its funding, including a State Inquiry into its museums sector; the proposed move of the Powerhouse Museum; a Masterplan for a cultural precinct at Walsh Bay; the Sydney Modern Project, and the refurbishment of Australia’s cultural icon, the Sydney Opera House – all big vision, big budget projects that have been the subject of intense professional and public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the arts portfolio under Minister Harwin’s tenure has seen a significant injection of funding to arts and culture infrastructure in the State, possibly the largest such increase since the bicentenary. That figure is currently sitting close to $900M of promised funds (some already allocated and expended).

‘And that is not the limit of my ambition, but don’t tell the Treasurer,’ Harwin added with a smile.

‘At a time when government expenditure overall has gone up 35%, the arts spend has gone up 85% during the time we have been in office. It is actually a great story to tell, and a great portfolio to have inherited, as a lot of good work had been done to set up a solid foundation. The State is in great shape,’ the Minister told ArtsHub.

In October 2016, Infrastructure NSW submitted the Cultural Infrastructure Strategy: Advice to the NSW Government, setting out its advice and investment priorities to enhance the State’s cultural sector over the next 10-20 years.

Graham Bradley AM, Chairman Infrastructure NSW stated: ‘The evidence is plain. New South Wales has fallen behind … Our report estimated that total investment in the order of $1.5-$2.0 billion is needed over the next 20 years to address immediate deficits in the condition and capacity of the State’s key cultural institutions …This represented a minimum level of necessary expenditure, not a cap.’

Minister Harwin’s response: ‘We will easily beat that. One thing I can be certain of, I will not be the Arts Minister in 20 years time, so I am probably being optimistic, but I honestly believe that there is a growing understanding in government – not just this current government – but in governments how critical arts and culture can be.’

Ticking off the wins

30 January marked the first anniversary of Harwin’s appointment as Minister for the Arts, along with the portfolios of Minister for Resources, Minister for Energy and Utilities, and the Vice-President of the Executive Council.

Sitting in his office with a backdrop of a modest suite of prints from the Tiwi Islands, and a sun-bleached landscape from Murrumbeena by Arthur Boyd, ArtsHub asked his wins over the past 12 months and his priorities moving forward.

Harwin set the scene: ‘One of the problems the arts has always had whenever it has been allocated infrastructure money was that it had just been whatever was left over – they had to rely on other people to deliver their projects for them.

‘Very soon after I came to the portfolio I spoke to the Departmental Secretary and said we need an agency that would be a centre of excellence focusing on cultural infrastructure.’

Establishing the Cultural Infrastructure Program Management Office (CIPMO) was a personal initiative of the Minister’s.

‘It is going to make a huge difference in terms of completely changing the whole programmatic approach to expenditure on arts and culture – that possibly will be the big win; the most important win while I am Minister,’ said Harwin.

Big vision has been the tone of his Ministerial tenure to date.

‘Being the Minister to announce the Sydney Modern Project will go ahead, the Minister to announce the allocation of the funding of the Concert Hall at the Opera House and, most important of all, the Minister to announce the establishment of the Regional Cultural Fund – these are the things I am most proud of in terms of large chunks of money,’ Harwin explained.

He continued: ‘The $100 million for libraries, art galleries, museums, and performance spaces throughout NSW is going to make a huge difference to the arts in regional communities, and that is a big one.’

Funds committed to date:

  • $244 million has been allocated to deliver the Sydney Modern Project.
  • Heads of Agreement have been reached with the City of Parramatta Council to acquire land for a New Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) and to establish a joint venture for the Riverside Theatres Redevelopment, a combined commitment of $140 million.
  • $100 million has been reserved over four years for the Regional Cultural Fund, currently in its first year of delivery
  • A further $68 million has been allocated for the Walsh Bay Arts and Cultural Precinct, in addition to the $139 million already committed at the time of the report (total $207M).
  • $26 million has been allocated to improve accessibility, acoustic and operational upgrades at the Sydney Opera House in addition to the $202 million already committed to the Opera House Stage One Renewal.

Minister Harwin revealed to ArtsHub: ‘We are putting $200 million into re-doing the Concert Hall as well.’

While Minister Harwin inherited the proposed move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta from former Premier Mike Baird, he agrees with the case for the move; image courtesy Powerhouse Museum

Update on the State Inquiry and the Powerhouse Museum

While the State Inquiry into Museums and Galleries started well before Harwin’s appointment last January, its delivery has dragged out into his term.

The Minister remained non-committal about the proposed delivery date on that report. “We will see; they have had a couple of extensions.’

He was more emphatic speaking to The Australian last year: ‘It’s been an interesting inquiry … [but] they’d be better off finalising their report and making some recommendations.’

An Interim Report was tabled 18 December 2017.

While the Inquiry was to be broad reaching, including topics such the effect of council mergers and efficiency dividends on long stream funding across the State, submissions were dominated by the move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta.

Read: NSW Government faces hammering over Powerhouse move

‘The Government will announce what it will be doing quiet separately from whatever the Inquiry proposes. I disagree with their interim recommendation about that museum. We will agree to disagree with them on that,’ Harwin said.

He continued: ‘My vision is a new museum at Parramatta that is bigger and better and has far more exhibition space than the museum at Ultimo, but to ensure the retention of a cultural space in the heritage precinct at Ultimo.’

During the Inquiry, the Minister testified that, ‘There has been no formal engagement with property developers in relation to the development on the Powerhouse site.’

He told ArtsHub: ‘My objective is a win-win. I am not sure all will agree with me on the final outcome, but I do predict this – in five years’ time everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about because it will be fantastic.

‘There are almost no spaces for learning at [Powerhouse’s] Ultimo site and yet this is the museum for science, technology, engineering and the arts – it is so important for education curriculum. This will be a huge focus of the new museum at Parramatta. It will give us the opportunity to imagine and deliver what a 21st century museum should look like,’ he added.

Harwin recognises that starting with programming for children is a great way to make Australia a more culturally democratic and diverse nation.

Artist’s impression of Walsh Bay Cultural Precinct; image courtesy NSW Department Planning and Environment

On Sydney Modern and Walsh Bay

Minister Harwin is a firm believer in the “Sydney Cultural Ribbon”, a marketing concept that links cultural organisations from the Australian Museum, to the Art Gallery of NSW, around the harbor foreshore, to Walsh Bay and eventually Barangaroo.

But that dream was stalled when the planning approval for the Walsh Bay Cultural Precinct landed up in the NSW Court of Appeal last year, following a two-year legal battle.

The Court ruled in favour of the restaurant, Simmer on the Bay, on the grounds that the planning approval for the project was invalid as it failed to consider the construction impact on nearby businesses.

‘The Court process was regrettable, but we are now on a much better footing,’ said the Minister. The project is now managed under the new office, CIPMO.

He continued enthusiastically: ‘It is going to be doubled in size of performance and rehearsal spaces for Bell Shakespeare, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Theatre for Young People – none of whom have had space down there before.

‘There will also be new offices for the Philharmonia Choirs and the Gondwana Choirs, and a refit of the three [companies] already there – Sydney Theatre Company, the Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Sydney Dance Company.’

The 2019 delivery date, however, will be likely delayed due to the Court action.

In regard to the Sydney Modern Project, the Minister said that the key driver for him was that it would enable the capacity to show more of the State’s Collection, and more public learning spaces.

Having recently viewed the NGV Triennial at NGV International in Melbourne, he made the observation: ‘You will see stuff down there that is so fabulous, but the thing that struck me is that these couldn’t fit in our Sydney gallery. We are a global city and in so many ways we are the creative capital of Australia and one of the leading cities of the Asia Pacific, and yet we can’t have something like that in Sydney.

‘That is why we need Sydney Modern and why I am delighted to have shepherded it through the budget process,’ Harwin said.

Read: $244 million gives Sydney Modern green light

Good news for musical theatre

Long before he was Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin has his own brush with musical theatre. At school he performed in the annual play and at University in an amateur drama group. Here he was introduced to his first opera – Othello – via a student rush matinee. He grew up in a home where his mother played the piano and he would sing along.

Harwin told ArtsHub that he has a passion for literature and history and was first introduced to the visual arts through his love of Martin Boyd novels. ‘The more I read, I found out his brother was Arthur Boyd’s father. It just all started to snowball.’

He revealed that Lisa Riehana’s panoramic video work, In Pursuit of Venus, at Campbelltown Art Centre, was ‘the most stunning piece of art,’ he had seen over the past year in his role as Arts Minister. ‘I could of sat for hours with it.’

The capacity to touch people through art is something ‘gets’. But he also recognises that is not exclusive to the high-brow end of the ecosystem.

‘Some people in the arts turn up their nose at commercial musical theatre, but it is actually a really important part of the arts ecosystem because the capacity to get long runs in those shows are what provides some stable employment for performers and for the people behind stage as well,’ he explained.

‘Obviously theatres are a critical issue for me, particularly musical performance,’ he continued. ‘This is another area where we are long behind Melbourne. We don’t have the lyric theatres that Melbourne has.

‘It is critical for the ecosystem, and the fact that we don’t have those theatres here is that we are missing out on so many opportunities for people who work in the arts, and I would really like to see what I can do about changing that.’

The Minister said that while allowances are in play to address that with Parramatta Riverside Theatres, he is also keen to look for an opportunity in Sydney CBD. ‘I see it as critical we do that,’ he added.

Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin visiting artist studios this week at the National Art School, Darlinghurst; Photo: Adam Hollingworth

The Minister’s priorities for the next year

In response to our question, Harwin was quick to start with arts education. ‘The National Art School is a particular interest of mine and I will continue doing work to ensure that it has firm foundations. That is a key focus of mine.’

He continued: ‘I am obviously doing a lot of work in the museum sector in the next 12 months and will finally announce the shape of what we are doing with the MAAS [Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences] Parramatta Project, and its other campuses.

‘There are other things in the museum sector that I would like to do, particularly driving more collaboration between the various cultural institutions so they work together and not in competition, and extending what they do by collaborating with other non-state institutions around the state in terms of regional touring – that is a big focus.

‘I also have a particular interest in making sure the museum sector focuses on telling the story of NSW and Australia from Indigenous experience right to contemporary times. I want to make sure that organisations like the [State] Library, MAAS and in part Sydney Living Museums – which I bought back into the arts portfolio when Gladys Berejiklian became Premier – are working together to do that.’

An attitudinal shift that benefits the arts

But it’s not all bricks and mortar. Harwin believes that an attitudinal shift has started.

‘We are seeing, for example, a great health and arts strategy and we are seeing some great work being done in the justice system, so great potential there. There really is a capacity to do more and to embed the arts in other parts of government.’

When asked about arts advocacy and political lobbying – in particular the new campaign that the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) launched this week which encourages artists to speak to politicians – he said: ‘I think that is fantastic – go their hardest.’

Read: The best agitation is about awareness

The Minister continued: ‘An enormous number of people do have an interaction with some form of art in their everyday lives, and sometimes that is overlooked by a range of people – in the media, in business, and in leagues of government as well.’

He continued: ‘Actually, the traditional boogie man for the arts – the bean-counters, the Treasury bureaucrats – are coming along for the journey and understanding Australia is moving. Our economy is in transition, and we need to focus on things that we have comparative advantage over, and Creative Industries is that [space].’

According to Infrastructure NSW (October 2016), the state is home to close to 40% of Australia’s jobs in the creative industries and the majority of Australia’s creative industry businesses. NSW contains almost half of all film, television and radio businesses in Australia and nearly 40% of all music and performing arts jobs in Australia. Creative industries directly employ almost 148,000 people in NSW (around 4.7% of total employment in the State) and account for 6.8% of NSW’s total services exports, worth around $1.38 billion.

‘Creative industries in Sydney is growing much faster than the services sector, and cultural tourism, as a subset of tourism, is growing much faster [than conventional offerings],’ said Harwin.

‘My colleague, the Minister for Industry, is putting together a Creative Industries Plan, which Create NSW are having input to, to drive those collaborations across sectors.’

The Minister’s closing advice to the arts sector on its public perception was: ‘I think, just pursue excellence and just keep inspiring and delighting people, that is the best way to changing things.’

Looking ahead he said he hoped that he would leave a legacy that, ‘bought some momentum, not just in terms of facilities, but in terms of programs and the intrinsic value of the arts being understood across Government.’

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, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina