National Gallery of Australia faces $67 million black hole

The National Gallery of Australia needs to urgently find more than $67 million to protect its $6. 1 billion art collection with a backlog of repairs to its 40-year-old building left unfunded by the Morrison government.

An independent review of assets undertaken for the gallery and obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age under freedom of information laws puts the cost of upgrades, including replacing lifts and escalators, at $87 million over the next five years.

The NGA, home to the most valuable collection of art in Australia, including Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, has been allocated $20 million for such purposes, leaving a $67 million budget black hole in wait for new Arts Minister Tony Burke.

The urgent repair bill is thought to be the tip of the iceberg, with millions more needed to replace and reseal the gallery’s roof and windows. The budget for those works could be as high as $60 million, according to a senior source who wishes to remain anonymous.

The National Gallery’s waterproofing strategy for the building’s roof and windows is a complex matter, a gallery spokesperson said. We are developing options to meet our objectives, including cost estimates.

Separately, years of efficiency dividend payments continue to adversely impact the gallery’s operations. The NGA cut 10 per cent of its staff in 2020, the year it closed its galleries to bushfires and COVID lockdowns, and has had to find $3 million in efficiency savings into 2023, according to its annual report.

This means it will need to boost commercial revenues or seek new philanthropic donations to sustain operations into the future or cut staff numbers, all on top of the unfunded maintenance bill. The art collections’ and acquisitions’ budget is separate and unaffected.

Disclosure of the unfunded maintenance bill comes after an extra in last year’s mid-year budget update to help save almost 300,000 individual documents and collections at risk of disintegration.

The of the archives suggests $167 million is needed to protect and upgrade archival and preservation systems.

The NGA building was constructed between 1979 and 1982. While the building is very well maintained the original structure is 40 years old and much of its core is at or very close to end-of-life.

A review by Ventia Property, commissioned last year, noted the gallery’s baseline average capital works budget was $4 million per year over the next five years.

We have found that NGA will also need additional funding to support the asset replacements through the next five years of $87. 557 million leaving a $67. 557 million deficit, it said.

The asset replacement of several large assets are overdue which increases the risk of failure and breakdowns across the portfolio. Ventia notes that there are several items for replacement that have very high compliance or WHS risks associated with further delaying replacement.

At a bare minimum, Ventia urged the gallery to prioritise $50 million for 27 projects that posed a very high or high risk, with high risk defined as when the asset has gone past its replacement date.

Descriptions of these projects were redacted from the document but are believed to relate to lifts and escalators, wiring and air conditioners necessary to keep exhibits in prime condition. Leaks to windows and the roof are persistent.

The report says the NGA could consider shutting part or all of the gallery for a period of time, similar to the National Portrait Gallery project that recently completed a large volume of work in a short period of time.

This could allow the gallery an opportunity to complete the disruptive works in a quick and efficient manner.

The gallery acknowledged its most recent strategic asset management plan identified funding gaps in its capital replacement program.

In 2017 Australis Facilities Management identified 57 major risk capital infrastructure remediation items. A failure of the critical ones would or could impact on the safety to people, damage to the physical building or the $5 billion art collection or the ability for the gallery to remain open.

The office of the arts minister said it was unable to comment as incoming discussions with department officials had not yet happened.

On his swearing-in, Tony Burke said he was committed to a national cultural policy.

Australia’s arts and entertainment sector has a government that cares about it, he said. A government that doesn’t see the arts as an optional extra but as fundamental to our society and national identity.

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