‘So good for Sydney’: fashion industry welcomes $500m reinvention of Powerhouse Ultimo

After six years of uncertainty, the building will be transformed into a ‘world-class’ fashion and design hub that lures blockbuster shows

Australia’s fashion and design industries have welcomed the New South Wales government’s plan to transform the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo in what has been described as the single-biggest investment in arts and culture since the building of the Opera House.

The NSW government announced on Tuesday that it would spend between $480m and $500m to turn the Ultimo site into a fashion and design hub.

The future of the heritage building in the inner-city suburb has been uncertain for years. In 2015 then-premier Mike Baird announced the building would be sold off to apartment developers, with the entirety of the museum’s expansive holdings moved to a new site in Parramatta. After five years of controversy and fierce community opposition, Gladys Berejiklian’s government abandoned those plans in 2020, but maintained its commitment to a second Parramatta site.

Models pose with designers Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett (left) Camilla Franks, Jordan Dalah, Jenny Kee, Bianca Spender, Alexandra and Genevieve Smart, and Julie Shaw at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum on 15 June, at the announcement of new State investment.
Models pose with fashion designers Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett, Camilla Franks, Jordan Dalah, Jordan Gogos, Jenny Kee, Bianca Spender, Alexandra and Genevieve Smart, and Julie Shaw at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum on Tuesday, at the announcement of new state investment. Photograph: ALyx Gorman/The Guardian

On Tuesday, NSW arts minister Don Harwin announced this year’s state budget would contain “the first tranch” required to fund “the complete renewal of this building”.

“Design and fashion will be at the forefront of this museum in the future,” Harwin said, while the Parramatta site – itself a point of contention, with questions raised over the viability of its location and an alleged lack of consultation with traditional elders – will focus primarily on science and technology. “The Powerhouse’s collection has more than 500,000 objects, 90% of which have never been seen by the public. That will all change.”

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences trust president, Peter Collins, compared the Powerhouse’s collections to the V&A in London, and the Smithsonian in the US, saying “this renewal will pave the way for generations to come”.

A competition will be launched to determine the design of the rejuvenated building at Ultimo. Harwin estimated that finding the design, gaining development approval and appointing a builder would take “the better part of a year”. “Once we’ve selected a builder then we’ll lock in a timeline,” he said.

The government intends to keep the Ultimo Powerhouse open throughout this process; they will commence major works that will interfere with the museum’s daily operations only after the Parramatta site has been completed. “It will be a few years before it’s finished. We want to avoid as far as possible having both museums shut. We’ll minimise the time when that happens,” Harwin said. Once the project is completed, it will mean Sydney has “two world-class museums”.

The deputy lord mayor of Sydney, Jess Scully, was impressed at the investment in arts and culture. “I’m sort of astonished and really excited that they’re seeing how much this contributes to culture and to the economy,” she said.

“It’s so exciting to see a community campaign that worked. People rose up and said no. That they loved the Powerhouse, they believed in its potential. People fought to keep the Powerhouse here and it’s worked. The government has come around, they’ve caught up with the people.”

Powerhouse Chief Executive Lisa Havilah in the basement of the Powerhouse Museum with some artefact from an upcoming exhibition, Clay Dynasty opening on 28 May 2021.
Powerhouse chief executive Lisa Havilah in the museum’s Digitisation Studio, with artefacts from the Iranzamin exhibition, which opened 19 March. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Powerhouse chief executive Lisa Havilah said the investment would make the museum, and the city, more competitive when it comes to hosting major international exhibitions. This has historically been a sore point for the Powerhouse, which has for many years lacked the climate control and staging facilities required to attract global touring exhibitions.

“We can really be at the forefront of rethinking what an exhibition experience is,” Havilah said. She also noted that the renewed precinct would contain a 60-bed residential academy to allow school students from the regions to undertake training intensives in applied arts, as well as subsidised working spaces for designers “to make and create”.

Anna Plunkett, one half of Australian fashion design duo Romance Was Born, has first-hand experience of working at the Powerhouse as a creative industries resident. She said spending time in “the basement” that houses the Powerhouse’s collection has been creatively invaluable. “People don’t actually know the extent of it … Being able to have the access, ask questions and see it in real life is so exciting.”

Devoting museum space to fashion makes economic sense; Plunkett’s work with the National Gallery of Victoria pulled in significant audiences. “People are waking up, I think … the McQueen show at the Met was the biggest-selling exhibition of all time. Fashion crosses so many boundaries, it’s so desirable and it creates so much space for crossing genres and storytelling.”

Of the announcement, Plunkett said: “It’ll be so good for Sydney. We don’t have anything, with fashion.”

Although fashion and design will be centred at the Ultimo site, the museum will still keep some of its other key works on display, including the Boulton and Watt, the Catalina flying boat and Locomotive No 1.

The Catalina Flying Boat, an 8.5tonne aircraft suspended in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
The Catalina flying boat suspended in the Powerhouse Museum. Photograph: William Robinson/Alamy

In 2018, a report commissioned into moving the museum’s full collection estimated costs of around $65.7m, with objects such as the Catalina flying boat – an 8.5 tonne aircraft currently suspended from the museum’s ceiling – posing a particular logistical challenge.

Although it would retain nods to the past, Harwin said the site’s about-face would be not just metaphoric but physical. “It will effectively turn [the building] around, so it faces east to the city and south along the Goods Line to Central Station.”

Scully welcomed this decision, which she said would solve a “disconnect” between the Ultimo precinct and Haymarket, while making the museum’s entrance “a much more pleasant place to linger”.

While the City of Sydney is yet to have any formal involvement in the rejuvenation project, Scully said she was excited about the site’s future. “What it says to me is it’s always worth fighting for the things that you love.

“I don’t know if I could have imagined this. I could see the potential back then, but it’s happened almost so quickly. I mean six years isn’t quick, but it is in government terms.”


Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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