‘Another day, another CEO for the PHM’ – Kylie Winkworth

‘Another Day, Another CEO for the PHM’

Kylie Winkworth, 13 November, 2018

After an international search for the next CEO of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), the government has appointed Lisa Havilah, current director of Carriageworks. She will start at the museum in January. Announcing the museum’s fourth CEO in just six years, Arts Minister Don Harwin lauded Havilah’s experience. “With eight years at Carriageworks, six years of experience at Campbelltown Arts Centre and six years at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Lisa understands Western Sydney and [its] vibrant arts and culture.”

Havilah is highly regarded for her work at Carriageworks, combining an adventurous multi-arts program with commercial events, and growing visitor numbers and income. If the government was creating a new contemporary arts museum at Parramatta her selection for the job would be an excellent pick. But this is not what the New Museum Western Sydney (NMWS) is about. The government’s plan is to recycle bits of the Powerhouse into a STEM or STEAM museum (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), so that it can sell the museum’s Ultimo site. Havilah is on record as a supporter of the PHM’s sale to developers. She will lead a senior management team at MAAS largely drawn from regional galleries, strong on contemporary art but short on science and collection experience.

The new MAAS CEO will be the face of museum demolition, closing the Powerhouse, managing the end of Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences, handing the PHM’s land and buildings to developers, moving the collection into inadequate storage, and building a smaller less accessible museum on a flood prone riverbank. The Parramatta community has said this is the wrong museum on the wrong site, but this scheme is not about meeting their cultural aspirations. Parramatta will get what the government says it’s getting. This is cultural planning by ministerial fiat. The government’s new pick for CEO will have to deliver all this with no increase in staff and ongoing cuts to the museum’s budget.

Perhaps this ugly set of challenges was a turn-off for applicants with museum experience, even with a salary package of more than $400,000. Museum experts can see that the whole mad scheme is under-funded, under-resourced and missing grassroots community passion. The Final Business Case papers released to the Legislative Council’s museum inquiry reveal an absurdly complicated set of interlocking projects. First there’s the closure of the PHM and removal of the museum’s massive collections. This will be a high-risk logistical and engineering nightmare, requiring parts of the building to be demolished. Then there’s a big job emptying and rebuilding the store at Castle Hill to take the 240,000 ex-PHM objects from Ultimo. Alongside this work is the design and construction of the NMWS, and the research and design of the STEAM exhibitions.  And if the CEO has any time left, there is work on the ‘Ultimo Presence’ and the mooted fashion and design display at the bottom of a residential tower on the PHM site. All of these complicated projects will be overseen by a government committee focussed on costs and lacking any museum or exhibition skills.

Yes Virginia it would be cheaper and simpler to keep the PHM and build a new museum at Parramatta, ideally one that the community actually wants. But the central aim of the government’s scheme was always about ‘releasing’ the museum’s land to developers. Shipping the PHM collections to Parramatta, Castle Hill and anywhere else is just a consequence of a developer-driven plan to get the museum’s Ultimo land.  The break-up of the museum’s historic collections is already underway as the museum looks to parcel out some of its Very Large Objects (VLOs) to volunteer museums with empty sheds. There’s no room for the VLOs at Castle Hill. This part of the collection move and storage was not costed in the project budget. Few of these objects will be displayed in the smaller NMWS, which will not have the PHM’s grand spaces and volumes.

The Powerhouse Museum took ten years to develop and a team of more than 400 people. The government says the NMWS will open in 2023. (Hollow laughter from museum experts.) In 2015 Mike Baird declared that the NMWS would be open before the next election. That’s four months away. Not even a ceremonial sod has been turned at Parramatta. The whole project has always been long on spin and groundless promises.

Lisa Havilah will be the fourth director of MAAS in less than six years; an unprecedented turnover in the museum industry. It is one of many signs of a museum in crisis. The latest Public Service Commission survey of MAAS employees reads like a vote of no confidence in the management. Just 16% of the staff agrees that the museum is effectively managing change. Only 19% think the museum’s senior leaders effectively lead and manage change. And just 23% agree that the senior managers model the values of the museum. Maybe the survey was done after the failed Fashion Ball and its now notorious after-party in the director’s office.

We are all invested in the success of the new MAAS CEO and wish her well. After all, it is our museum. It belongs to the people of NSW, not just Western Sydney. Lisa Havilah will take charge of one of Australia’s most significant collections, endowed by generations of donors over nearly 135 years.  Let’s hope she can keep it together. Having driven the museum into the ground with cuts and controversy, the government could give Havilah a fair chance of success by restoring the museum’s budget and staff. Around 400 people would be the right number for the jobs at hand.

Better still, the government could stop the sale and demolition of the PHM and let the new CEO use her outstanding cultural planning and community skills to develop a new museum for Parramatta and Western Sydney, based on the region’s cultures, stories and creativity. Barracking from business groups and the media may get the government’s attention, but this is not evidence of the community’s cultural needs and priorities. Successful cultural projects are planned from the bottom up, around community conversations and transparent consultations. That’s what releases community passion and ‘buy-in’, the magic ingredient in animating and sustaining cultural projects and institutions. Lisa Havilah knows how to do this and the government should let her run with it, free of their poisonous Powerhouse demolition plan.

And finally, after trash-talking the PHM for the last four years, the least the government can do to support the new CEO is to immediately declare free entry to the Powerhouse, to encourage families to reconnect with the museum and re-kindle the magic.

See also Altmedia: http://www.altmedia.net.au/another-day-another-ceo-for-the-powerhouse/135192