Canberra galleries, museums call for urgent budget support to end decade of ‘complete neglect’

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Canberra’s top museums and galleries say they cannot afford to repair their aging buildings and are asking for financial support in next month’s federal budget.

A lobby group representing the cultural institutions said about $800 million was needed to repair the facilities, which include sites such as the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and the National Library of Australia (NLA).

Katie Russell, the national director of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association, said the funding was urgently needed to undo a decade of “complete neglect”.

“The threat is very real to people’s experience of our cultural institutions and also what we can offer across the nation,” she said.

“It has been a lack of recognition of what [the institutions] offer the Australian people and what they can showcase internationally.”

Efficiency gains hit institutions unfairly

ONE parliamentary inquiry in 2008 and one Review of the finance department in 2011 found that so-called “efficiency dividends” – annual cuts in state operating budgets – unfairly affected smaller bodies such as cultural institutions.

However, both sides of politics have since relied on these dividends to save money. The Albanian government plans to continue introducing small efficiency cuts of 1 percent per year.

Despite the dividend, most institutions had relatively stable funding over the past decade after the effects of inflation were considered.

An exception was the Australian War Memorial (AWM), which received large budget increases in recent years.

Another was the NLA, which suffered both a real funding cut and staff losses.

Marie-Louise Ayres with a restored photograph.
NLA director general Marie-Louise Ayres says the library does not have funds for digital archives.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

The library’s director general, Marie-Louise Ayres, said the biggest problem was a lack of investment in infrastructure.

“We receive no capital allocations to look after our buildings, which are very large and have significant heritage issues,” she told ABC radio.

“All of our buildings have leaks, age-old air conditioning issues, accessibility issues and are inefficient from an energy perspective.”

Dr. Ayres said the library was unable to keep up with its growing collection or digitize its archives.

Since 2017, the NLA had received no funding for these archives, including the popular online service Trove, she said.

However, the library received funding to address some of the 55-year-old building’s problems, including its aging windows and air conditioning.

Large white plastic wrapped over repairs to the roof of the National Library in Canberra.
The library’s roof was damaged in Canberra’s massive 2020 hailstorm.(ABC Canberra: Clarissa Thorpe)

Dr. Ayres said she wasn’t holding her breath for institutions like hers to receive more funding in the upcoming budget.

“Do I expect that when the May Budget comes there will be a huge pot of gold that will magically solve 35 years of funding problems? No, I don’t,” she said.

But in addition to this budget, Dr. Ayres that she hoped for long-term investments.

“If we don’t look after our cultural institutions, we don’t look after the very heart of our memory, and we will be thinner as a nation in the future if we don’t address this now.”

Hope lies in new cultural policy

A woman with glasses smiles at the camera.
Australian Museums and Galleries Association chief Katie Russell says cultural institutions need an extra $800 million.(ABC News: Harry Frost)

The Albanian government is developing a national cultural policy that it plans to publish later this year.

Ms Russell said she had spoken to federal arts minister Tony Burke about the policy and was optimistic it could help.

“It’s a chance to remedy the situation, address those years of neglect and see something happen for these cultural institutions collectively that restores their value and ability to serve the public,” she said.

“I think it’s gratifying that this is being developed as a cultural policy – it’s more all-encompassing than an art policy.”

She did not dismiss the extra funding set aside for the AWM’s redevelopment, but said it was understandable that staff in other institutions felt a “bit of envy” over the war memorial’s budget.

Burke said no decisions had been made about the policy or additional funding; he still consulted widely.

“For a decade, the former government’s culture war hit our fundraising institutions hard,” he said.

However, the minister said that the institutions’ budget presentations showed “how serious the situation has become”.

a man speaking at a press conference while standing at a lectern
Arts Minister Tony Burke agrees that the institutions are in a serious situation.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

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