A glittering party attended by some of the stars of Australia’s fashion scene was meant to be a fundraiser, but documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws reveal it lost nearly $140,000 and taxpayers footed the bill.
In February, Sydney’s cash-strapped Powerhouse Museum splashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds on a ball attended by models, designers and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
The event was meant to raise money to preserve key pieces of Australia’s fashion history to add to the museum’s collection.
It was billed as Sydney’s answer to New York’s Met Gala, but the balance sheet reveals it was anything but.
According to the event’s budget, the cash expenditure for the party was $388,391. Revenue from sponsorship and ticket sales brought in $173,181, leaving a shortfall of $215,210.
FOI documents revealed the museum, which is publicly funded, covered this shortfall from its own budget.
VIP guests on the night donated a total of $1150 – three gifts of $50 each and one for $1000. Combined with a portion of ticket sales, the total amount raised was $78,500.
So, the Powerhouse Museum ended up with $78,500 in fundraising, but had to spend nearly triple that to get it, leaving the public purse $137,000 worse off.
Guests flown in from Paris
In addition to the cash expenses, the party had approximately $200,000 worth of in-kind sponsorship consisting of international airfares, hotel rooms, vodka, wine and French Champagne, bringing the total value of the party to nearly $600,000.
NSW Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party MP Robert Borsak is chairing an Upper House inquiry into the NSW Government’s management of museums and art galleries.
He said: “There’s something shonky going on here, something very, very smelly.”
“A party for 121 people at the Powerhouse with probably as many hangers-on costing $388,000? Unbelievable. And they seem to have raised only about $78,000 in direct donations. How can you spend $388,000 for a party on one night?”
In March, Minister for the Arts Don Harwin told Parliament the so-called MAAS Ball – named after the Powerhouse Museum’s new name, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences – raised more than $70,000.
Mr Borsak said: “He clearly gave an answer that was meant to mislead me and the public.”
The museum confirmed the party was attended by 264 guests, 92 were unpaid and another 52 tickets were given to sponsors. Only 121 guests paid for tickets.
Event organisers flew four people to Sydney return from Düsseldorf, Paris and New York and 10 guests were accommodated in hotels for up to five nights each.
A further $10,000 was spent transporting visitors from interstate and picking up the tab for their transport around Sydney.
Designers Akira Isogawa, Jenny Kee, Linda Jackson and Collette Dinnigan mingled with the editors of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, who, along with Powerhouse director Dolla Merrillees, were hosts of the event.
‘The ball was successful’: Powerhouse Museum
Mr Harwin declined to comment on the figures. A spokeswoman for the minister directed the ABC to the museum and described the ball’s budget as “an operational issue”.
A spokesman for Mr Harwin later told the ABC that Parliament “has at no times been misled”.
“The responses given to Parliament were based on advice received from the director of the museum. The MAAS Ball was entirely organised by the MAAS Trust and MAAS staff,” the spokesman said.
MAAS director Dolla Merrillees is on leave until the end of July.
A MAAS spokeswoman said: “The ball was successful in achieving its objectives by introducing the Centre for Fashion to key stakeholders, building relationships with key corporate, industry and cultural partners, raising funding for the Australian Fashion Fund, increasing MAAS’s fashion collection and enhancing the reputation of MAAS as the leading public centre for fashion in Australia.”
Despite the reported success, the museum – which posted a $10 million deficit last year – is not planning to repeat the extravagant event.
Former Powerhouse deputy director Jennifer Sanders said she would never have staged a ball or allocated public funds to cover a shortfall from it.
“This is much more a branding exercise and it’s a very expensive branding exercise,” she said.
“A museum would be very wary of embarking on such a high-profile, expensive event when, for far less money and with good partnerships, there is a record of developing a collection and raising a profile that fits exactly with the resources of the institution.”