[Image: Artist's Impression of Sydney Modern | © SANAA Architects]
I often get asked why I spend such a large proportion of my time helping arts organisations – in some years as much as 25%. The answer is always a simple one. I firmly believe that arts organisations have a uniquely influential role in shaping society, with the artists they support often at the forefront of societal change.
Most recently my work in the arts space has included a project for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, undertaken in partnership with Philanthropy Squared. Working on this project has given me a front row seat as the Sydney Modern gallery extension has raced towards completion – an extension that comes with an oft-quoted $340M price tag.
Given my statement above, you won't be surprised to hear that I don't immediately view the cost of Sydney Modern negatively. Compared with the $107 Million spent building the Opera House (equivalent to almost $1 billion today), I'm not sure you can easily mount a case that it's not a well-thought through investment in Sydney's cultural future – especially given over $100 Million has been raised from private philanthropy to balance the $240 Million from State Government coffers.
The price tag is, unsurprisingly, a talking point though, with many in the media looking to highlight it as an easy way to stoke some controversy and sell some papers (or rather subscriptions in this digital age).
In my view, their questions about the cost are too narrow in their focus however. What I see as being more relevant is whether the type of society a re-envisioned Art Gallery of New South Wales could help support is worth this level of investment? What kind of long-term societal impact should we be looking for from our arts institutions? What is this impact worth? And what are we therefore willing to pay for it?
None of these questions are easy to answer, but I would love to see someone try! Otherwise people like me will keep having to rely on our 'belief' in the power of arts organisations to shape society, without any real facts to back it all up.