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Powerhouse Museum collection caught in version of beds-to-the-west

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That the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo was singled out three years ago to redress that neglect reflects Treasury's aversion to building and operating a new museum from scratch in Parramatta – even one in which some locals are keen to celebrate the city's Indigenous and migrant past.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announces the Powerhouse Museum's Parramatta site during a press conference in Parramatta on Saturday.

Photo: Cole Bennetts

The Powerhouse building has its limitations but the Art Gallery of NSW has its faults too, a sandstone pile on the edges of The Domain too small to display and celebrate the full story of Australian art, distant from train stations and equally reliant on international blockbusters.

Whereas the Art Gallery is to receive $244 million public money for a new wing to showcase contemporary art, the Powerhouse has lacked influential benefactors.

Surprisingly it has tended to undersell its veritable treasure trove of Australia's social history and industrial and transport heritage. And it is this – the sledges of Mawson and Scott, a priceless working Boulton and Watt steam engine, built into the museum itself, the wool samples of Samuel Marsden – that sits at the heart of these policy decisions.

Cabinet could well have opted to expand the flagship cultural institutions in western Sydney than go to the massive expense of relocating the Powerhouse. The Campbelltown Arts Centre is crying out and for a new 318-seat theatre, studios, rehearsal and workshop spaces. The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith could be expanded to include a Western Sydney Conservatorium.

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As the University of NSW's Joanna Mendelssohn notes, these venues are lean, innovative and deeply connected to their audiences, producing programs of intellectual rigour that are massively popular and entertaining.

Equally, they have developed independently around local councils, which have seeded them and so lack a broader state focus.

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In this, the distribution of art and cultural resources in western Sydney reflect a region that is effectively four separate cities, where the extremes of rich and poor often live side-by-side in the same neighbourhoods.

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So it may take another generation or two before a homegrown millionaire philanthropist with the vision and deep pockets of David Walsh can establish a Museum of Old and New Art in the region.

Until then, arts and cultural leaders of western Sydney say the new museum is merely the start.

They will be agitating for programs and resources that will provide a proper home for the city's creatives – the architects, designers and writers – and their audiences.

And the defenders of the Powerhouse Museum's collection will continue to remind the government that its cultural legacy is precious and should not be used as a political football.

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Linda Morris

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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