Democracy repeatedly sabotaged in heritage, arts and cultural planning

Sabotage – to destroy, damage or disrupt, especially by secret means.

Parramatta Council has published a cultural discussion paper and is inviting community responses by April 7. Culture and Our City – a cultural discussion paper for Parramatta’s CBD is seeking feedback and ideas to contribute to a new cultural plan. I urge you to read it and respond. The plan is intended to guide arts and cultural directions, over the next five years and beyond. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself reacting with anger and frustration. Yes, I had been a willing participant in a focus group for the discussion paper, but my frustration was not with the research or the principles articulated in the draft.

Bear with me, this requires some explanation.

The research was commissioned by the new City of Parramatta Council, which is administered by an appointee of the NSW Government. There will be no democratically elected council until September, by which time the state government will have run the show since May 2016. No government would allow the release of a document in its name without its approval and authorisation and it shows in this one. The parameters of the research are restricted to Parramatta’s CBD and do not include the rest of Parramatta’s local government area, including the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. For almost 70 years, the Parramatta community has been tantalised with promises of cultural opportunity and then betrayed more often than not in their implementation.

According to the 1948 County of Cumberland Scheme released by the NSW Government, Parramatta was to be the most important centre after Sydney. The only drawback at the time was the lack of adequate cultural facilities in Parramatta. I was an active part of a push that led to the opening of Riverside Theatres in Parramatta in 1988, above (Sydney Festival 17 photo), but still there was no gallery. Then the state government, under Labor Premier Bob Carr, invited artists and community members to discussion groups in the late 1990s about the future of the Cumberland Hospital site, now described as the North Parramatta or Fleet Street Heritage Precinct. Opportunities were sketched for future artists studios, music and dance rehearsal spaces, heritage and community facilities – and on the outskirts – medium density residential development – not unlike current proposals by North Parramatta Residents Action Group.

Nothing more was heard until Parramatta Council released its Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework (2005) – Parramatta: Identity, Contemporary Culture & Prosperity. “The Parramatta Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework 2005,” it said, “will assist Council in establishing a clear direction for the planning, the provision and resourcing of a broad range of arts infrastructure & cultural places for the City over the next ten years. The vitality of Parramatta comes down to establishing cultural assets with a point of difference, that are unique, reflect the community and complement rather than replicate the rest of Sydney’s cultural resources. The City must also build its cultural identity and creative industries to attract, retain, validate, and acknowledge the role of artists in our community, as well as to generate new wealth and prosperity for Parramatta.”

Then Lord Mayor of Parramatta, David Borger, was the political champion of this framework, and officiated at the opening of Parramatta Artists Studios – the foundation component of the framework, where production has continued to flourish. The framework stated there would be three sites for the placement of facilities –

Cluster 1 Venue—Civic Place (the administrative heart of the CBD)

Cluster 2 Venue—Old Kings School (on the bank of Parramatta River and across the road from Riverside Theatres)

Cluster 3 Venue—North Parramatta Mixed Use Site (i.e. North Parramatta Heritage Precinct)
Twelve years later, not one of these facilities has been achieved. The first was not so much a matter of the state government as a fierce struggle between council, landholders and developers. Civic Place, now known as Parramatta Square, left (artist’s impression), is finally under construction, but there is no mention of a major gallery or exhibition space. This is primarily the council’s responsibility.
Determined advocacy by artists, the Western Sydney Arts Lobby and proposals for adaptations of the Old King’s School buildings, continued right up to the March state election in 2011. Then a week before the election, Labor Premier Kristina Keneally announced $24.6 million for the refurbishment and transformation of the heritage buildings into galleries and spaces for arts groups – intended for regional and not just local use, see photo below. The government was defeated and after six months the new Liberal/National Party Government failed to allocate funding and claimed it was an unfunded election promise. In 2015, the government announced the precinct would become a primary school, which is now under construction.
In the meantime, the state government announced the decision to subdivide and sell much of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct for high rise development.  It claims the sale of one of Australia’s most important historic sites is the only way it can finance preservation of its heritage. A framework masterplan was to be developed by the government agency UrbanGrowth NSW. Local residents were appalled. Many of them lived close by in a Parramatta Council heritage listed zone and by 2013 were banding together in protest. One of them explains their distress, with relevant links:
“There are over 10 conservation areas in Parramatta district and these all have residents. The contradictions between what’s supported and allowed for property developers and for those who are resident in the conservation areas affects more people than just those adjacent to the high density/high rise planned in what’s called the ‘Parramatta North Urban Transformation’. List of conservation areas link. Link to straightforward map of North Parramatta Conservation Area (there are 2 parts of this one area). This map is worth a close look.  The current North Parramatta Heritage area between  O’Connell and Villiers St is very close to 90,000 sq metres in size.

“Regulations governing what can be done by property owners are in the Parramatta Local Environmental Plan 2011   (Current version for 23 September 2016 to date Part 5 Clause 5.10) Parramatta LEP requires owners to organise and pay for all archaeological surveys prior to submitting DAs for approval and construction of a simple garage or shed on their land as it is in a conservation area where it is anticipated features/items of archaeological significance can be found in the land.  Surveys have not been done of the entire conservation area so it falls to each individual to do instance-by-instance. (We can’t even dig a vegetable bed.)

“The inequity and hypocrisy around the different circumstances of those in conservation areas compared to property developers who plan to profit from high rise development in recent rezoning/planning is stark.”

In June 2014, then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a cultural ambassador for western Sydney, Liz Ann Macgregor, left, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). For many years, under her leadership, the MCA has worked closely with a “terrific network of galleries, organisations and artists in Western Sydney doing innovative and highly engaging work.” She was keen to bring their work to closer government attention. She was also keen to bring the services of Sydney museums and galleries to the west. In February 2015, Mike Baird announced the sale of the Powerhouse Museum at Darling Harbour and its relocation to Parramatta. To many it was seen merely as a land grab for developers and resistance by Save the Powerhouse supporters was fierce.

Nonetheless, the Powerhouse move was seen by others as symbolic of the state government’s commitment to western Sydney and enthusiastically embraced by David Borger, now the Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, and other civic leaders and, more cautiously, by the Western Sydney Arts Lobby. Anything, after all, was better than nothing. Later that year a Deloitte report, commissioned by Sydney Business Chamber – Western Sydney, and three western Sydney councils – Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Economy – A Key to Sydney’s Success, recommended relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to western Sydney.

Since then, there has been much debate about what funds the sale of the Darling Harbour site, left, would actually generate, the cost of relocation and whether Parramatta Council should simply donate the announced new site, it already owns, on the banks of the Parramatta River. The current fiasco over the state government’s authorisation of demolition of the city’s main swimming pool to make way for the expansion of a sports stadium is a guide to what may come. Parramatta Council acquiesced without protest, before the administrator was appointed last year. No financial compensation has been made for the loss of the popular pool and no state funds committed to the building of a new one. A new aquatic centre is said to be two to five years away. Sabotage of community interests now seems standard practice.

A year ago, exchange visits between Save the Powerhouse Museum and NPRAG members led to mutual support for each other’s positions and SPM supporting a proposal for a museum unique to Parramatta and the region. The visitors were gobsmacked by the volume and evidence of Australia’s colonial history in the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct and the site’s treasury of thousands of years of Aboriginal custodianship.

Last October, Liz-Ann McGregor was the guest speaker at a Western Sydney University event – the launch of a Bachelor of Creative Industries. The new degree combines majoring in a chosen field within the creative industries, with minors in business management and law. Liz Ann spoke in the presence of WSU Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Glover, who was also the newly appointed president of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) Trust. The trust will play a pivotal role in the Powerhouse’s relocation to Parramatta (see artist’s impression). She spoke of the current dispiriting atmosphere that surrounds financial support for the arts at state and federal levels and internationally and the likelihood of little change in the foreseeable future. She spoke of her own frustration when arguing with ministers for better support for western Sydney and meeting with a wall of resistance.
In this climate, a long term project like MCA’s C3West offers a model of alternative approaches that have been bringing artists, businesses and community together for more than a decade. A course like the new Bachelor of Creative Industries can equip artists with the financial and marketing skills to enter into these relationships. It takes a long time for artists and business to learn to talk each other’s language, she said. It’s a slow process, but artists can often articulate issues and offer possible solutions.
Under Suzette Meade’s leadership North Parramatta Residents Action Group has been listening to community and working with other organisations to develop an economically viable alternative proposal for the Fleet Street Precinct. They want genuine community consultation. Their supporters and collaborators number in the thousands, but neither state government nor Parramatta Council are really listening.
Is it any wonder she wrote to Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore last week appealing for her help? In a neat summary Elizabeth Farrelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald

“This week, when North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group begged Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to “adopt the community of Parramatta, as we are left without a democratically elected council” there certainly was envy. It was the envy of people deliberately disenfranchised at a moment of great change, people gazing wistfully at a place where local government is strong, free and fair. It was an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment.This envy is entirely justified.

“Parramatta is reeling from a governelopment boom: 3000 apartments on its irreplaceable heritage precinct (Cumberland Hospital, 1818 Female Factory); the $2 billion ultra-ugly Parramatta Square project behind the old town hall; the proposed new Powerhouse, or whatever fragment of it finally drifts up-river; the demolition of the Pirtek Stadium and pool for a bigger, more lucrative stadium (no pool); plus masses of private development like Meriton’s 54-storey Altitude, the city’s tallest tower, on the old David Jones site. Barely a squeak of affordable housing anywhere, and the people held voiceless, all the while, by a government-appointed city administrator.”

It makes better sense to create a cultural hub celebrating indigenous and migration history (NPRAG’s Artist’s impression in their Alternative Vision, above)

I’m off for three weeks to New Zealand. Family members there tell me local governments are guided by democratically elected advisory committees and it is one of the world’s most democratic countries. Now there’s an idea!

Angry residents to march on Sunday in protest at state government plans

NPRAG - march posterAngry residents and supporters will march on Sunday, June 5, to protest the NSW Government’s plans to demolish Parramatta Pool and develop the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Not only have these plans proceeded with minimal or no consultation (as with the pool), the government now controls the development approval role of Parramatta and other councils. In the process of amalgamating local governments, the state government has placed the new enlarged councils in the hands of government appointed administrators. There will be no local government elections until September 2017, so in the meantime, the NSW Government can ensure approval of its plans by councils. So much for democracy, while the fox looks after the hen house! Local schools, churches and community organisations are all supporting this event.

1-NPRAG - Jack MundeyOrganisers say “We will assemble in the carpark in front of the Pirtek Stadium at the lights of Victoria Road and O’Connell Street for a briefing before starting our walk with our banners.  We are really pleased to announce that Western Sydney Samba will be showing their community support by supplying us with cool beats to keep us marching. We will be escorted by safety marshalls waving our banners and chanting to save Parramatta’s community pool and green space from private development.  We will walk along O’Connell Street, and after Parramatta Leagues Club turn down Fennel Street, along Fleet Street to arrive at the Cumberland Oval in the Cumberland Hospital Precinct.” Jack Mundey, above, one of the union leaders who led the Green Bans of the 1970s, at last year’s community rally where extension of Green Bans over the entire Cumberland Hospital site was announced.

“For those that won’t be able to participate in the march please join us at the Oval at midday where the community will meet for some short inspirational speeches from community leaders. Afterwards you can help support First North Rocks Scouts who are fundraising for vital repairs for their hall and cooking on the BBQ to sell us a lovely sausage sizzle on the grounds. Bring your family, Bring your neighbours,  Bring your friends!

Parramatta North artist's impression 2Since the first “community consultations” conducted by UrbanGrowth NSW in November 2013 about the future of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct, a tide of community concern has been growing. Initially, the “community” was represented by very few people and the options they could consider were strictly limited. The site was little known and largely hidden from public view in Fleet St, North Parramatta. Above, is an artist’s impression of the redeveloped sports field in the precinct.

The precinct is the site of some of Australia’s most important Aboriginal and colonial history, including the convict Parramatta Female Factory from the 1820s and the 1840s Roman Catholic Orphanage – subsequently the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. Many of the buildings on the site are currently in use by Cumberland Hospital, which is gradually transferring its mental health services to other locations. The 1840s Parramatta Gaol adjoins the site, but is not part of current considerations.

The state member for Parramatta, Dr Geoff Lee MP, says that NSW Government needs to sell most of the 30 hectares of land in the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct to fund the conservation of its heritage buildings. Sale of the first super lots will begin in 2017. Although adjustments have since been made, apartment blocks of 20 and 30 storeys high are still among proposals by UrbanGrowth for residential development.

Old Government House, ParramattaIf these proceed, one of the first consequences could be the loss of World Heritage status for Old Government House. On a recent Heritage Week walk with Brian Powyer, vice president of the National Trust NSW, Brian pointed to the northern view from just behind the house, which encompasses the North Parramatta site. Currently, it is a soft vista of grassy parklands, trees and the flow of Parramatta River. One of the conditions for maintaining World Heritage listing is that there should be no intrusion of multi-storey buildings into that view. Brian explained that it was only when Parramatta Council insisted that the multi-storey towers currently being constructed on the old DJ’s site be moved one metre back from the riverbank, to the east, that the status was granted in 2010.

Parramatta Council’s 2005 Arts Facilities and Cultural Places Framework was developed as a 10 year plan for the future provision of arts facilities and associated projects across the City of Parramatta. The first major venue was to be in Civic Place, the second was to use The Old King’s School and the third to be a mixed use site in the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Little has been heard of stage one. After years of lobbying by the local and regional arts community, The Old King’s School has been taken over by the NSW Department of Education. After 20 years of discussion initiated by the Carr Labor Government about arts facilities on the North Parramatta site, a community meeting in February this year was told by UrbanGrowth representatives that the Minister for the Arts was not interested in the site.

1-NPRAG - symposium panelNorth Parramatta Residents Action Group has been strenuously lobbying for a delay in planning, while the community draws up alternative proposals. With the support of the National Trust, Parramatta Chamber of Commerce and many other community organisations, they conducted a very successful symposium last year, above left, which heard from a broad range of experts. Brian Powyer continues to receive widespread support for his proposal that a formally recognised community consultative committee should be appointed to the North Parramatta Project. UrbanGrowth points out that they work under the instruction of their political masters. Advocacy for change must be directed at them. That’s what Sunday is about.

Sydney’s west moves against absurd heritage and arts funding discrimination

Hyde Park BarracksIt would be an absurdist comedy if the consequences weren’t so serious. Suzette Meade, president of North Parramatta Residents Action Group dubs it a tale of two cities. She also thinks she might become a script writer for ABC TV’s satirical comedy Utopia. It offers such a parallel to local experience of nonsensical political and bureaucratic behaviour.

Last Tuesday, August 25, the state government announced a revitalisation of Sydney’s oldest and most important historic precinct in Macquarie St, including Hyde Park Barracks, above. The convict architect Francis Greenway designed the barracks and some of the buildings in both the Sydney and Parramatta precincts. No mention was made of selling off parts of nearby Hyde Park or The Domain to finance the Sydney changes. This is despite the government’s chosen method to finance conservation of buildings from the same era in North Parramatta, by selling off vast tracts of land around them to allow massive new development.

1-NPRAG - Jack MundeyLast Thursday, August 27, Suzette hosted a media conference on the site of the early colonial Parramatta Female Factory Precinct. Among those represented were NPRAG, the National Trust, Friends of the Parramatta Female Factory, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project, the CFMEU, political parties and various heritage groups.Since early February, when the resident action group was formed, members have been working to persuade the state government to “Press Pause” on its proposal to turn the World Heritage class site into an infill dormitory suburb of 4000 residential apartments in blocks up to 30 storeys high. The group has networked and built a comprehensive community coalition.

Suzette said, “Make no mistake. Despite UrbanGrowth NSW and the state government’s rhetoric, the current proposal is not heritage driven. It is a fast-tracked, poorly and unimaginatively conceived cash grab of public assets to fulfil government housing quotas that are being and can be satisfied in more appropriate locations. Parramatta is the cradle of our modern nation. Since 1788, this extensive and unrivalled site with its more than 70  historic intact buildings, has been witness to exceptional personal stories and social changes that have shaped and informed who we are today.

1-NPRAG - Jack Mundey“Green bans saved the historic Sydney we all love and which international visitors flock to. The Rocks, Victoria Street, Centennial Park, Woolloomooloo, the QVB building for instance would not be here today if it were not for our great national icon and environmental activist, Jack Mundey, protecting these unique places from inappropriate development.”

During the 1970s, Jack, right, was secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation, which introduced “Green Bans” in response to community advocacy when residents were desperately trying to protect their homes and cherished sites from gross redevelopment. Though often against their own need to earn a wage, a “Green Ban” meant that BLF members refused to take any action to demolish or build on a threatened site. Long since retired, Jack was present at the conference with the state secretary, Brian Parker of the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which now represents the builders. Brian can be seen to the right of Jack and Suzette to the left, behind Jack.

“How disgraceful it would be that this part of Australia’s history would be destroyed,” Jack said. “The Green Bans in the 70s and 80s stopped so much of Sydney being destroyed. The Green Bans will be reborn in this part of Parramatta and we will win this fight as well.” PFFP - Roman Catholic OrphanageAn earlier Green Ban that the union put on the Female Factory site has now been extended to include the entire precinct, including the 1840s Roman Catholic Orphanage, left, and the children’s hospital Bethel.

Brian Parker reiterated Jack’s concern that communities need green spaces and the chance for future generations to to be educated in their own history. He spoke of the huge scale of coming development, which will have an enormous impact on Parramatta in the next decade and of the vital need to balance this with open space. He said workers would stop the North Parramatta development from going ahead by putting their “bodies on the line”. “The CFMEU is going to show our muscle if they try and bring one bulldozer in here to tear this place apart,” he said. “But we won’t win without the support of all local residents.”

In the meantime, arts and cultural representatives from across western Sydney have been meeting for the last 18 months to instigate collective thinking across the arts in the region. The primary aims of the Western Sydney Arts and Cultural Lobby are to secure equity in arts funding for the half of Sydney’s population living in western Sydney, a place at the table where decisions are made and to communicate the success of arts activity across the region. In a paper just published by the lobby, members say that the funding paradigm needs to change.

“The dynamic art scene of western Sydney has evolved enormously over the past 40 years yet it has been woefully underfunded – A point made clear in an independent report from Deloitte, which found that despite its burgeoning population and booming economy, the region’s art scene has flourished and thrived into a rich and dynamic force but remains well short of its potential as a result of being grossly underfunded.”

1-OKS - April 2011The lobby is pressing for the establishment of an infrastructure development fund – $200 million of the $600 million already allocated to arts infrastructure by the state government. After losing a 10 year battle for the Old King’s School in Parramatta, left, among its allocations would be the development of a new cultural precinct to house arts and cultural companies that require permanent accommodation. “The government must deliver on the commitments made in its State Infrastructure Plan to build facilities in western Sydney.” Members want funding doubled to a Western Sydney Cultural Fund over the next four years for artists, programs and cultural organisations, and specific investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts development. They are currently making submissions to government and opposition parliamentarians.

In North Parramatta, Suzette Meade announced a symposium to be held at Parramatta Leagues Club, on Tuesday, October 13. “To lead the paradigm shift for a better vision, NPRAG will be hosting an event the public didn’t get through UrbanGrowth NSW: the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct Symposium. Speakers from academia, tourism, the arts and successful heritage organisations and towns such as Abbotsford Convent, Port Arthur, and Ballarat, will be invited to share their experiences and brainstorm alternative master plans and funding options for this iconic site.” More detail will be announced later.

Watch as Parramatta Female Factory campaign goes national and spread the word

1-IMG_3232NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, announced today that the Old King’s School at Parramatta will be converted to a state primary school. It will not become the long advocated arts and cultural precinct, but at best share facilities for after hours use by artists and the community. Meanwhile, the future of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct continues under threat from the state government’s urban renewal plans. Local residents and their supporters, who are campaigning against the excessive proposals through the recently formed North Parramatta Residents Action Group, are taking their fight up to ABC National Television. Above, is an example of demolition by neglect as the portico of one of the Frances Greenway designed Female Factory buildings slowly collapses.

Spread the word and watch the program:

Saturday, June 20, Australia Wide, ABC News 24, 9.30 pm
Sunday, June 21, Australia Wide, ABC TV, 10.30 am (repeat)

Governments send shock waves through the arts in western Sydney

First it was the federal government’s budget announcements and then the media announced that the state government has plans to convert the Old King’s School in Parramatta to a primary school. Once again, the arts in western Sydney are required to role with punches delivered by governments.

PYT 2015 launch celebration“Just thought everyone needs to know that come December the whole national youth arts sector will be de-funded by the Australia Council #‎freethearts.” This statement posted by Kaz Therese on Facebook, spells a forceful blow for the 30 year old Powerhouse Youth Theatre, at Fairfield, where Kaz has been artistic director for the last two years. The company has been the leading youth arts theatre in western Sydney for decades and under a series of dynamic directors, has made an enormous creative and social contribution.

Of course, it doesn’t spell the end of the company – it has too much support from the community, Fairfield Council, Arts NSW and many others, but it just makes everything so much harder. The Australia Council has previously awarded Kaz special recognition of her creative production abilities. One of the awards enabled her to create and produce the highly successful FUNPARK at Bidwill as part of Sydney Festival last year. Above, Kaz and PYT members celebrate the launch of their 2015 season earlier this year.

1-PYT - Team AustraliaAustralian Theatre for Young People artistic director Fraser Corfield had feared the changes in federal arts funding announced in this year’s budget would advantage bigger arts organisations at the expense of their smaller counterparts. “Looking at the youth theatre sector, which is nationally the smallest and least funded of arts organisations, it’s going to be very difficult to get traction in that sort of funding environment.” His fears have been realised.

Both youth theatre companies worked together during the past year to present In This Fairfield: Romeo & Juliet In The West at PYT Fairfield, ATYP’s base in Sydney and at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. There is a similar arrangement for PYT’s Team Australia: Stories From Fairfield later this year, photo above.

Read more about the decision to divert $104.7 million from the Australia Council to a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts, to be administered by the federal Arts Ministry, led by Senator George Brandis by clicking here. The National Association for Visual Arts is 1-Patrick Hromas - protest 0515circulating an open letter to George Brandis from the Visual Arts Sector and you can sign by clicking here. Blue Mountains artist, cultural activist and publisher Ian Millis comments about an article in The Guardian, which gives in international context for these changes, “This is by far the best analysis I have seen so far of what is going on with Brandis, although I would add a bit more about the pork barrelling potential for a minister controlling art funding.” Click here to read the article.
Artist, poet and secretary of the Blue Mountains Artists Network, Patrick Hromas, right, made his feelings known at #Free The Arts National Call for Action, on May 22. He joined hundreds of other Sydney artists in Hyde Park. The painting details are as follows: Patrick Hromas La Nuit/Du Jour (I am not worth a moments sorrow.) 2009, Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 76.6. Click here to read more about Patrick and his art and here for his poetry.
1-OKS - April 2011If the announcement about The Old King’s School is true, it is yet another setback for the long advocated use of the heritage school buildings as an arts and cultural precinct, across Marsden St from Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. As Western Sydney Business Chamber director David Borger has said, “For arts precincts to work, the buildings need to be in proximity and complement each other so there is an ecosystem which builds growth and audiences.” So far, the Education Department has said no decision has been made.
Although state member for Parramatta, Dr Geoff Lee, repeatedly states the NSW Government’s commitment to the creation of an arts and cultural precinct and the relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, there is still no announcement as to where it might be sited. Geoff has said publicly on several occasions that he thinks that the old Parramatta Gaol would make an ideal arts and cultural precinct, but that too seems out of reach. The gaol has been granted to the Deerubbin Aboriginal Land Council following a claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act earlier this year. Above is the Old King’s School in April, 2011, when it still carried the banner proclaiming it to be Western Sydney’s Arts and Education Precinct.

Election looms – what happens now about arts precinct for North Parramatta?

1-Prem Keneally OKS-001“What a great day for Parramatta – and for the arts in western Sydney – A very important piece of cultural infrastructure has been secured and I congratulate all of the artists that made this happen.” Director of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah, was speaking at the launch of Tom Polo’s exhibition, at Parramatta Artists Studios, March 4, 2011. The day before, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally announced the long-awaited arts hub for the Old King’s School site in Parramatta. It was her last pitch to western Sydney before the state government went into caretaker mode before the March election. Above, Parramatta Advertiser‘s photo and caption as the Premier announces the $24 million arts precinct.

It was the climax of at least 30 years of intense lobbying for arts facilities and a culmination of Parramatta Council’s Arts and Cultural Plan (2000) and  Arts Facilities and Cultural Places Framework (2005). Among the Framework’s objectives was – “to consolidate and build on partnerships with the State Government in the current investments in Parramatta by investing in new arts facilities to keep pace with the anticipated growth of Greater Metropolitan Sydney.” The framework outlined three cluster venues for arts facilities – first, in the city centre, second, at the adjacent Old King’s School site where education, visual arts and dance would be pursued, and third, for the longer term, the North Parramatta Cumberland Hospital site.

1-IMG_1675As the first step in this process, Parramatta Artists Studios officially opened in the heart of the city in April 2007. Non-residential and residential studio spaces were offered to emerging and established professional contemporary arts and crafts practitioners. The response was sustained and enthusiastic. Almost 1-IMG_1677immediately, many began to campaign for the Old King’s School. They knew that sitting and waiting was not an option. The announcement by Premier Keneally was a triumph after years of preparation.

In the photos, banners announce the Western Sydney Arts and Education Precinct on the walls of the Old Kings School.

Then the 2011 election was held, the Labor government was swept from power and replaced by the Liberal/National Party government under the leadership of Premier Barry O’Farrell. In June 2011, the new Coalition Government said that “funding was not there” and in July the premier, who was also the minister for western Sydney, was saying the whole project was “under review”. On August 11, 2011, under the headline Funding furore dogs arts issue, Parramatta Advertiser editorialised “There cannot be a more vexed issue in Parramatta at the moment than the mooted arts precinct on the Old King’s School site. The arts precinct. seemingly promised by the previous state government, has become a political football, with both sides accusing each other of lack of action.”

In the same issue, Di Bartok reported that despite claims by the O’Farrell Government that an arts precinct for the Old King’s School site was a “five minutes to midnight” announcement, the previous government had commissioned a Business Case and Economic Appraisal report. The 2010 report was a blueprint for an education and creative industry precinct – “a landmark development for western Sydney, involving the establishment of a gallery outside of the Sydney CBD and multi-media facilities and programs to support creative industry growth in the region.” It was claimed that more than $10 million of the $24.6 million project was already available.

Uncertainty hovered. Artists and supporters pounded the new state member for Parramatta, Dr Geoff Lee, with demands for the Old King’s School. Some set up a Facebook site Urgent – Save The Old King’s School. More than a year went by. For those who had fought  for years in the centre of the campaign, energy waned. Their commitment remained but they needed to continue with their own creative production rather than waste time banging their heads against a brick wall. Parramatta Artists Studios continued with a busy schedule which included providing resources and facilities for artists, supporting city events and festivals, presenting forums and offering workshops for children and adults.

1-OKS street rallyParramatta Advertiser. August 3, 2011, reported artists in a street rally to keep the Old King’s School in public hands for use as an arts precinct.

Then in November 2013, members of the arts and heritage protection communities were invited to state government organised workshops about what had now become a Parramatta North Framework Masterplan. Financial viability was the fundamental consideration for a 146 hectare site that included some of Parramatta’s most sensitive heritage sites including the Old King’s School, the Parramatta Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Training School. The response from participants was cautious optimism that recognised the need for private development to fund the adaptive re-use of historic buildings for arts and commemorative purposes. More consultations were promised.

“The concentrated consultation approach was designed to deliver a fast-paced saturation-style of communication and engagement activities. The approach was prepared to trigger constructive stakeholder conversations about urban renewal on the unique Parramatta North site, as well as inviting new community voices to be part of the consultation, ahead of rezoning application lodgement with the Department of Planning and Environment in September 2014.” wrote the communication consultants, page 5 of their report.

Such a rapid consultation process with only short notice of each stage is fine if you are a developer, whose business is to identify opportunity, but if you are an artist or community member with many other professional commitments, participation is a daunting challenge. A check of the sites for UrbanGrowth NSW and Department of Planning and Environment reveals little evidence of arts centre planning. National Trust NSW and Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project & Parragirls have already registered strong protests about the heritage outcomes of proposals to date and asked for an extension of time to February 27 for submissions – see previous blog posts.

Another election looms, so what happens now about an arts precinct for North Parramatta?

Current stage of North Parramatta planning is before Cabinet committee

Given the complexity of the work being undertaken by Urban Growth NSW to develop a Framework Masterplan for the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct, it is hardly surprising that the original goal of March 2014 for a first presentation has now been postponed. Community consultations only began last November about the future of 146 hectares of NSW Government owned land, which include the colonial Parramatta Female Factory Precinct (incorporating the former Parramatta Girls’ Home), the Old King’s School, Parramatta Park, and Cumberland Hospital.

It is difficult to reconcile the pressures of a three year electoral cycle with a planning process that requires consultation and negotiation across 12 different government agencies in addition to community, stakeholders and industry. Parramatta state member Dr Geoff Lee MP is leading the push for the preservation of significant heritage buildings and landscapes, and to provide long needed arts and recreation facilities. He is strongly supported by state member for Toongabbie and shadow minister for the arts, Nathan Rees MP. Both acknowledge that finance for these activities may need to be raised through opportunities for sympathetic private development on the North Parramatta sites and urge all stakeholders to recognise the need for patience and compromise. There is extraordinary potential to be unleashed, but the need of at least a decade to bring it to fruition.

Each stage of the Framework Masterplan needs to be considered and endorsed by government before proceeding to the next. The current stage of the project is before the Infrastructure Committee of Cabinet and Urban Growth will report back soon. In the meantime, you can check progress on Urban Growth NSW website at any time.