Seven Days: Time to support M.A.D.E, not condemn it

WHAT is surprising in the discussion about the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) is not its current financial position.

Full coverage

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• Politicians say council must support museum

• The best reader ideas on improving M.A.D.E

Museums such as this rarely make money in their formative years.

It is also not surprising that visitor numbers are below expectations.

New ways of telling stories and engagement in the digital age can’t always be measured solely by traffic through the front door.

What is concerning, however, is how few people have been prepared to defend M.A.D.E since information became publicly available about its first 12 months of operations.

What is concerning is how few people have been prepared to defend M.A.D.E

It was left to former premier and M.A.D.E patron Steve Bracks – in Ballarat for an unrelated event – to honestly assess and publicly support the future of the facility this week.

Ballarat City Council earlier this month released a report updating its assessment of M.A.D.E.

Language used in the report was at the very least direct. This week, the council admitted a “clerical” error had led to it publishing online a previously confidential version of the report which was further laid bare its assessment of the centre. Some points contained in the report are worthy of analysis.

The council report states: “M.A.D.E opened in May 2013 and was granted an operating budget of $750,000 for the 2013-14 financial year. By December, these funds had been fully expended, largely as a result of M.A.D.E’s low revenue. Council was required to provide further funds to allow M.A.D.E to operate out to the end of the year.”

Not once in the report does it mention the budgetary impact of capital costs associated with the redevelopment – a six-figure sum. Confusion continues to exist over the finances anyway, with suggestions the initial operating budget was based upon flawed documents and very little publicly available information until this week.

The report also states: “Continuing to support M.A.D.E in its current form is expected to deliver only a modest benefit to the Ballarat community in the forseeable future.”

Contrast that report to a statement from city chief executive Anthony Schinck last November after The Courier revealed there had been a capital cost overrun: “Council acknowledges that M.A.D.E is a unique cultural asset for Ballarat, and will require a significant period of time to establish.”

Further, in a tightly worded joint statement attributed only to the City of Ballarat and the museum this week: “M.A.D.E is... a strong contributor to external perceptions of Ballarat as a smarter city and its aspirations to become a regional capital city. M.A.D.E strongly supports the council’s mission for arts and culture to position Ballarat as regional Victoria’s most dynamic, diverse and engaging centre for arts, culture and heritage.”

The report also compared visitation between M.A.D.E and Ballarat library in a bid to provide “context”. Its assessment of apples (a long-established public service facility) and pears (a redeveloped cultural facility) certainly provided a stark comparison. 

The messages Ballarat City Council sends about M.A.D.E are extremely important to how it is viewed within our community and potential visitors.

The grand opening in May last year saw Cr Des Hudson perform the official duties on behalf of the city. However innocent it was, then mayor John Burt and deputy mayor Samantha McIntosh were absent, instead attending an ironman event in New South Wales.

To some involved at arm’s length to the project, it was seen as a snub.

After community uproar at Cr Burt’s name being engraved on the opening plaque, he agreed to a change, saying: “I’m happy for my name not to be on the plaque, but it’s not about who was in attendance on the day, it’s about the City of Ballarat’s contribution to M.A.D.E.”

Those who saw Cr Burt’s non-attendance as a snub are the same people who agree with his comment that the city’s contribution remains the key issue both pre, and post opening.

There’s a much bigger picture here. In 2004, and 2006, consultant reports were provided to Ballarat City Council clearly stating there were issues associated with operations of the then Eureka Centre.

Critically, this information was available when the state and federal governments agreed to pitch in $10 million for capital improvements. It was also available when a previous Ballarat City Council employed Lateral Projects to manage the “revisioning”. The multimillion-dollar investment should have been enough to fix the major structural flaws.

So why, less than 12 months after re-launch, is the current council expressing so much negativity about M.A.D.E’s future?

It reeks of damage control and, worse, blame-shifting

Our guess is because any issues regarding the performance of M.A.D.E are not solely associated with its operations during the past 12 months. It’s recognition that flaws were not addressed before the opening. Unfortunately, it reeks of damage control and, worse, blame-shifting.

Criticisms levelled at M.A.D.E’s operational focus are intriguing. Undoubtedly, under director Jane Smith, it has forged a futuristic path, as was clearly required. For all the negatives which have been pointed out in recent weeks – and considering the interesting new options being proposed by the council – it could be said that better transport links, improved signage from major roads, vigorous promotion of the centre as the new home of the Eureka flag and a rethink of the M.A.D.E acronym to make it recognisable to its target audiences would at least give it a better chance to attract more visitors.

According to state and federal governments, ongoing funding responsibility for M.A.D.E sits firmly with Ballarat City Council. The current council now has an obligation not only to secure a viable future for M.A.D.E but just as importantly to lead the community in positively supporting M.A.D.E’s role in telling the unique and nationally-important story.

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