Canberra galleries and museums call for urgent budget support to undo a decade of ‘total neglect’

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

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

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

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

“It’s a lack of recognition of what [the institutions] to offer the Australian people and what they can show internationally.”

Efficiency dividends hit institutions unfairly

A parliamentary inquiry in 2008 and one Report of the Financial Department in 2011 found that so-called “efficiency dividends” – annual cuts to government operating budgets – unfairly affect small agencies like cultural institutions.

However, both political camps have since relied on these dividends to save money. The Albanian government plans to continue imposing small efficiency reductions of 1% per year.

Despite the dividends, most institutions have enjoyed relatively stable funding over the past decade after accounting for the effects of inflation.

One exception was the Australian War Memorial (AWM), which has received major budget increases in recent years.

Another was the ALN, which suffered both a real reduction in funding and personnel losses.

NLA chief executive Marie-Louise Ayres said the library has no funding for digital archives.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

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

“We don’t receive any capital allocation to maintain our buildings, which are very large and have significant heritage issues,” she told ABC radio.

“All of our buildings have leaks, old air conditioning issues, accessibility issues and are energy inefficient.”

Dr Ayres said the library was unable to continue to accommodate its growing collection or digitize its archives.

Since 2017, the NLA has not received any funds for these archives, including the popular online service Trove, she said.

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

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

Dr Ayres said she was not holding her breath that institutions like hers would receive more funding in the next budget.

“Do I expect that in the May budget there will be a huge pot of gold that will magically solve 35 years of funding problems? No, I don’t think so,” he said. she declared.

But beyond that budget, Dr Ayres said she hoped for a longer-term investment.

“If we don’t take care of our cultural institutions, we don’t take care of the very core of our memory, and we will be slimmer as a nation in the future if we don’t take care of them now.”

Hopes rest on a new cultural policy

A woman in glasses smiles at the camera.
The head of the Australian Association of Museums and Galleries, Katie Russell, said cultural institutions needed an additional $800 million.(ABC News: Harry Frost)

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

Ms Russell said she had spoken about the policy with Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke and was optimistic it could help.

“This is a chance to put things right, to address those years of neglect, and to see something happen collectively for these cultural institutions that are restoring their value and their ability to serve the public,” she said.

“I think it’s gratifying that this is being developed as a cultural policy – ​​it’s more holistic than an arts policy.”

She did not regret the additional funding set aside for AWM’s redevelopment, but said it was understandable that staff at other institutions felt a “bit of envy” towards the AWM’s budget. Memorial.

Mr Burke said no decision had been made on policy or additional funding; he always consulted widely.

“For a decade, the previous government’s culture war has hit our collecting institutions hard,” he said.

However, the minister said the institutions’ budget proposals showed “how dire the situation has become”.

a man speaks at a press conference while standing in front of a lectern
Arts Minister Tony Burke agrees the institutions are in a dire position.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)
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