‘Completely insufficient’: Money troubles stall SA cultural collection hub

EXCLUSIVE: An $86 million centre to house South Australian cultural artifacts and art work valued at $1.2 billion has stalled, with the state government blaming a “completely insufficient” project budget. See the project video

May 05, 2023, updated May 08, 2023
A render of the original plans for the cultural storage facility at Walkley Heights. Image: Brown Falconer/SA Government

A render of the original plans for the cultural storage facility at Walkley Heights. Image: Brown Falconer/SA Government

The new cultural institutions storage facility was slated to open next year at Walkley Heights, but a government spokesperson yesterday told InDaily that construction was yet to start.

The former Marshall Government in 2020 committed $86.5 million towards the 14,500 square-metre facility, which was to store collections from the Art Gallery of SA, SA Museum, SA History Trust and State Library in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment.

It followed calls from the SA Museum for new storage space, with about 95 per cent of its cultural artefact collection currently housed in a leaky, ageing former printing warehouse at Netley, where it is at risk of flood and humidity damage.

Combined with pieces from the Art Gallery, State Library and History Trust, the total estimated value of the state government’s artefact and art work collection is $1.2 billion, but the cultural institutions argue many of their pieces are priceless.

Announcing plans for the new storage centre in 2020, former Premier Steven Marshall said the building would be “fundamental to the care and safekeeping of the state’s cultural treasures, which in turn are fundamentally important to South Australians and our identity as a state”.

“This new facility will allow a more collaborative approach between our cultural institutions and deliver a venue to securely protect South Australia’s collections,” he said.

But a government spokesperson yesterday told InDaily that the $86.5 million set aside for the facility was “completely insufficient to deliver the scope of the project”.

They said the government went out to tender for the facility’s construction, but the responses exceeded budget and were further inflated due to cost escalations across the construction industry.

“The government is committed to the cultural storage facility and is working with the Department for Infrastructure and Transport and the project management team to deliver a fit for purpose outcome,” they said.

“The scope of the cultural storage facility is currently being reviewed in order to achieve its core objectives within the allocated budget.”

According a report by parliament’s Public Works Committee, tabled in 2021, the lease for the SA Museum’s current storage space at Netley expires in June next year and there is “no option” to extend it.

The government is considering leasing options for the cultural institutions’ collections as part of the review into the new facility.

The SA Museum’s current storage facility at Netley. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The SA Museum holds the biggest and one of the oldest collections of Indigenous Australian cultural material in the world, with more than 30,000 spiritually and anthropologically-significant pieces sourced – ethically or otherwise – from across Australia’s approximate 250 Aboriginal language groups.

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Among the Netley collection is a remnant from the first Aboriginal flag, an Eora man’s wooden club that Lieutenant David Blackburn fashioned into a whip upon arrival in Australia on the First Fleet, and intricate contemporary Yolngu bark paintings.

Those pieces lie alongside 5000 spears, 3000 boomerangs, 500 bark paintings and drawers brimming with hundreds of intricately woven baskets, neck-pieces and sculptures.

Tarrkarri Centre for First Nations Cultures ambassador David Rathman told InDaily he understood the new storage facility was being “scaled back” due to budget constraints.

“It’s had to be downsized to some extent, but my understanding was the storage facility for the Aboriginal collections wouldn’t be pared back, but it would be a smaller facility than what was originally envisaged,” he said.

The Opposition’s deputy leader and arts spokesperson John Gardner said that prior to year’s state election, the former Marshall Government was “at the stage of being able to seriously commence work” on the storage facility.

He said the government had a “moral duty” to build the new storage facility, to ensure the state’s cultural collections could be moved out of “rented, inadequate facilities that have had incidents over the years that have seen priceless artefacts damaged”.

“It’s been really distressing to see the way that the new government has taken very little interest in the project and apparently seems like they have delayed the project to a point where the cost factors have been biting more fiercely,” he said.

“The former Liberal Government put $80 million into the project, which at the time would have delivered the project as needed.

“The Marshall Liberal Government was the first government that ever treated this serious problem with the care that it deserved and we put in significant financial resources towards it.”

It comes after freedom of information documents released to the Opposition showed the SA Museum faced a deficit of more than $1.1 million this financial year.

According to the documents, the museum is considering reducing the use of freezers, cutting back on security and cleaning, and job losses to meet its savings targets.

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