Canberra's national museums and galleries have warned the new government they are at an impasse after a decade of under-funding and staffing cuts, urging Labor to restore their resources to stop them being left behind.
The iconic institutions said they needed more sustainable funding levels if they were to meet the public's expectations, make the most of new ways to reach audiences, and in some cases rectify critical building issues.
A union representing staff at the national institutions has also called for the government to exempt the agencies from an annual funding cut that started 35 years ago.
The calls for an end to years of government neglect could shape a new national cultural policy being formed by the Albanese government, one of its promises to the arts and culture sector and expected to be delivered by the end of the year.
National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich told the federal arts department consulting on the policy that two decades of government funding cuts and rising costs had curtailed ambitions and the ability to leverage the sector's potential.
"Presently, national cultural institutions are at an impasse," he said.
"Their operating budgets have not shifted for over a decade and are consequently unable to keep up with the cultural intensity of their sister organisations both domestically and internationally."
The National Gallery was also facing building issues that needed government attention, he said.
"Sustainable investment in infrastructure assets, including buildings, grounds, and digital systems, is imperative to protect staff, visitors and the artistic assets of institutions for future generations to enjoy and experience," Mr Mitzevich said.
"The National Gallery has significant critical building issues that must be rectified, that to date have not been fully prioritised by government."
The gallery's $8 billion art collection was greater in value than all the other public art collections combined, he said.
"This national asset needs to be given special attention for its care, display and management."
Mr Mitzevich said there had been a severe lack of investment in maintaining and modernising national cultural institutions.
The under-funding had limited opportunities to share the national collection with audiences, he said.
"Funding models for national institutions are unsustainable, undermining the ability to contribute fully to the cultural development of the nation," Mr Mitzevich said.
"Funding cuts over the last two decades have constrained core activities, reduced staffing levels, created constant uncertainty and curtailed ambition."
He called for the government to prioritise a funding pipeline to resolve a backlog of critical maintenance and capital infrastructure works to make sure national institutions were fit for purpose, and to establish a sustainable funding model that "empowered institutions to contribute proactively to the cultural agenda".
Agencies warn of constraints
Australia's National Film and Sound Archive echoed the calls for more funding, saying that like many cultural institutions, it had struggled with a decline in resourcing, particularly over the past decade.
Staffing levels had fallen 20 per cent since 2012, despite the archive's collection almost doubling in that time.
"These constraints are particularly challenging as the institution becomes increasingly reliant on digital tools for preservation, storage and distribution that necessitate a growing ICT workforce in an exceptionally competitive employment market," it said.
"Further, in the decade since the release of the iPad, digital forms, technologies and industries have massively expanded the remit of the institution, which is still also responsible for the preservation of growing numbers of at-risk physical artefacts in obsolete and perishable forms.
"The growth in our digital business has not replaced but added to our ongoing and important analogue and onsite role."
Budget pressures had limited the archive's ambitions to showcase the collection and its creators through exhibitions, both in Canberra and regionally through touring, the archive said. The institution's ability to respond to digital technologies such as games preservation and providing streaming services was largely unfunded, it said.
Both the National Museum and National Library warned that efficiency dividends - an annual cut in Commonwealth agency funding that started under the Hawke government - had disproportionately hit national institutions.
The National Museum said financial sustainability had been a major risk to all national collecting institutions in recent years.
"The government faces growing challenges to address the preservation and storage needs of its cultural collections, with many of these works presently stored inadequately or in facilities that do not meet international standards," it said.
"Safeguarding assets worth in total nearly $11 billion is needed to ensure that these cultural treasures are available to people for all time."
National Library director-general Marie-Louise Ayres said the efficiencies gained by the institution through the efficiency dividends were far outweighed by the responsibility to serve a larger and more diverse nation, via increased channels.
"The library has progressively reduced many of its programs over recent decades: all with significant thought and regret; none without long-term impacts on what the nation's library can offer its citizens," she said.
Dr Ayres also warned of the impact of under-funding on the buildings of national institutions.
"Our national cultural institution buildings are majestic and are visited by millions each year - but almost all are suffering from decades of under-investment in maintaining and enhancing these capital assets, with serious consequences," she said.
'Not to be forgotten'
The Community and Public Sector Union has urged the government to exempt national institutions from the efficiency dividend and called for it to work with the union on a new funding model for the agencies.
CPSU deputy secretary Beth Vincent-Pietsch also called for the government to look at growing ongoing staffing levels, saying national institutions had been forced to rely on casuals and labour hire, leading to high turnover and a loss of corporate knowledge.
National institutions should not be overlooked in the conversation about a new cultural policy, Ms Vincent-Pietsch said.
"We are hoping that they don't get forgotten in this process, but they are recognised for the importance that they've got and that they do get a much better funding model that means that those collections are sustainable into the future, because that's our cultural heritage."
The new Labor government is consulting with artists and creators across Australia as it develops a new national cultural policy aiming to rejuvenate the sector after what Arts Minister Tony Burke described as a "nine-year political attack" from the Coalition.
Mr Burke told the Arts Industry Council of Australia in 2021 the policy would involve more than funding announcements but influence multiple areas of Australian society.
"Cultural policy is more than some funding announcements for the arts. When you get it right, it affects our health policy, our education policy, our environment policy, foreign affairs, trade, veterans' affairs, tourism," he said.
"A nation with a strong cultural policy is a nation where we know ourselves, know each other and invite the world to better know us."