The Arts divide: funding for the arts still paints a picture of two Sydneys

Protestors ask the government to leave the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. Picture: Fiona Harris/Fairfax Media.
Protestors ask the government to leave the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. Picture: Fiona Harris/Fairfax Media.

Twelve months after a report highlighted the government's lack of arts funding commitment to the west, it remains a "drop in the ocean" compared to the east.

Since economists revealed how little arts funding western Sydney received compared to its eastern counterparts last February there has been $30 million pledged to the region by the state government.

However, eastern Sydney has been promised more than $420 million for arts sector work in the same time.

The funding levels outside the CBD have been described as unfair and “just the beginning of what is needed” by advocates.

Councils said they had provided significant funds for arts and needed the state government’s support to match.

Use this map to compare eastern Sydney arts infrastructure funding and institute grants with greater western Sydney:

Report highlights inequality

A $10 million government plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta has come under fire from elected representatives and the arts community. But a Fairfax Media survey of funding announcements in the first year since the scathing report shows that single project alone wouldn’t come close to evening the scales. 

In a report released just before the 2015 NSW election, Deloitte Access Economics said western Sydney “has a significant shortage of cultural venues and events compared to Eastern Sydney.”

Deloitte explained that western Sydney made up 30 per cent of the NSW population, but received only 5.5 per cent of the funding. The gap is almost 550 per cent for those who don’t have a calculator handy. 

Economic reasons were given for restoring balance, such as leverage created by urban renewal, a higher return on investment, attracting the creative class to western Sydney and building resilient local economies.

The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Center in Penrith. Picture: Gene Ramirez.

The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Center in Penrith. Picture: Gene Ramirez.

Powerhouse Museum move promised and other funding increased

The centrepiece of the government’s plan to reinvigorate the arts in western Sydney was to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta. Two possible sites have been identified and a plan to recoup some of the cost through development of the Ultimo site.

That move was part of a $30 million arts funding package, including increased funds distributed through Arts NSW to institutions, studios and council bodies across the greater Sydney region.

Those are hard working local arts institutions that entertain and employ a huge number of people on a per-dollar basis.

Blacktown Arts Centre scored $927,000 over three years; Campbelltown Arts Centre $1.35 milion over three years; Fairfield City Gallery was given $240,000 over three years; Penrith Performing and Visual Arts was awarded $1.25 million over three years; The Eleanor Dark Foundation in the Blue Mountains was given $525,000 over three years and Hawkesbury Regional Gallery and Museum scored $105,000.

In the St George and Sutherland Shire area, arts funding is also lagging behind the eastern Sydney establishments. Branch Nebula won $80,000 and Shopfront was given $100,000.

The Blacktown Arts Centre. Picture: Geoff Jones.

The Blacktown Arts Centre. Picture: Geoff Jones.

Eastern Sydney promised the most money

By comparison, the eastern part of the city has been showered with money. Since the Deloitte report was released, the announced figures have cracked the $420 million mark.

The Opera House will get an upgrade worth $202 million; the Art Gallery of NSW will receive $45.5 million according to the last state budget; $41.5 million will go to the Australian Museum; the Walsh Bay Precinct was given approval for a $139 million upgrade, with $11 million promised just for planning and design. 

The grants to individual companies, studios and other major establishments like Carriageworks at Redfern would drag the numbers higher still. The Art Gallery of NSW has asked the government for $450 million to extend and refurbish its precinct. 


Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek speaking at the rally to keep the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. Picture: Fiona Harris/Fairfax Media.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek speaking at the rally to keep the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. Picture: Fiona Harris/Fairfax Media.

Western Sydney advocates fierce reaction

Hania Radvan, CEO of Penrith Performing and Visual Arts admitted that funding had increased in western Sydney but that it was “just a drop in the ocean.”

“All the people in western Sydney that are taxpayers are actually funding and supporting eastern sydney arts and culture – that’s just not fair and it’s not equitable,” she said.

“The people of western Sydney deserve better. They should be jumping up and down and demanding more of their government.”

Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Council’s (WSROC) president, Cr Tony Hadchiti said the scales weren’t even.

“This is fantastic, but it is just the beginning of what is needed to build a resilient cultural arts economy in Western Sydney.”

Lego superhero display at the Powerhouse Museum. Picture: Fairfax Media.

Lego superhero display at the Powerhouse Museum. Picture: Fairfax Media.

Arts Minister says councils must fund arts infrastructure

Deputy Premier and Arts Minister, Troy Grant, recently implied local councils had to do more to fund arts infrastructure by themselves. He said local governments would have to build infrastructure and the state government could help “fund what’s inside them”.

"So if we change that precedent we'd have to assess what the actual long-term demand on government would be and whether that's sustainable," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in January.

Several advocates said distributing arts infrastructure in this fashion effectively asked western Sydney taxpayers to help fund art infrastructure they aren’t able to properly access.

A spokeswoman clarified Mr Grant’s point, claiming the state government was only responsible for five state-operated cultural institutions: the Australian Museum, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney Living Museum, Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Opera House.

Mr Grant’s spokeswoman re-stated the government’s position on moving the Powerhouse Museum in this context.

“The Liberals & Nationals Government committed to bridging the cultural infrastructure gap by relocating one of these five institutions (the Powerhouse) to western Sydney,” she said.

“While local infrastructure is the primary responsibility of local councils and councils need to be the primary driver behind them, the NSW Government is interested in being a partner...”

$10 million has been allocated for the Powerhouse move and plans to sell the land at the current Ultimo site, while hundreds of millions have been allocated to Sydney city sites.

Parramatta's Riverside Theatre. Picture: Louise Kennerley.

Parramatta's Riverside Theatre. Picture: Louise Kennerley.

WSROC and Councils hit back

Cr Tony Hadchiti of WSROC said the split was too much for council’s to overcome alone.

“Western Sydney councils are up to the challenge, but we need to remember that we are still looking at $420 million vs $30 million split of available funding for arts and culture,” he said.

Blue Mountains Mayor Cr Mark Greenhill said his city had been up to the task of opening cultural infrastructure – with the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub being nominated as new art spaces. 

Ms Radvan was dubious about the breakdown of funding for infrastructure, saying that people don’t travel long distances for cultural participation or viewing.

“We know people don’t usually travel more than about 20 minutes for their cultural fix,” she said. “We love the cultural institutions in the city, but we want them here as well; and we are [those institutions] so we want them supported where they exist.”

Hawkesbury Mayor Kim Ford pointed out that western Sydney taxpayers should see more of their contribution in their backyard.

“Council would also simply note that the residents of the Hawkesbury and greater western Sydney...contribute to the finances of the NSW State Government and the Federal Government through the taxation system. It would only seem reasonable that they should have a corresponding share of the funds,’’ he said.