Rethink long overdue for Fed Square

The most welcome outcome of the Apple “Town Square” failure has been the announcement of the Victorian government inquiry into Federation Square. This will open up its governance and operations to much-needed public accountability. And there’s no shortage of questions to be answered.

Those questions start at the top. On what basis is Fed Square being run? Why is there no master plan to guide their work? Cultural precinct boards need strategic expertise in urban planning, shopping centre management, public space, arts and media. Are these represented at board level?

How are key decisions at FedSquare made? How often do key decisions rely on external consultants? On what basis are they engaged and how much are they paid?

As well as its governance, Fed Square’s staffing raises many questions. Staff turnover has long been high: a minimum of 25% across available annual reports, and 51% last year. While “Great Staff” and “Great Place to Work” used to be measures featured in annual reports, more recently they’ve vanished. How is executive performance reviewed? Why has FedSquare been unable to retain expert staff in programming, the area most emblematic of its civic and cultural mission?

We also need answers on why so many of Melbourne’s premier arts and cultural events have stopped working with Fed Square – the departure of the Melbourne Writers Festival being the latest. Why have they all left? How have their contracting arrangements changed across FedSquare’s history? Have they been priced out? Are there still venue hire rates at genuine non-profit levels? How does that align with Fed Square’s obligations under its Civic and Cultural Charter?

The Apple failure raises some big questions about how that deal was done in the first place. On what basis were the negotiations with Apple undertaken? How was the cultural value of ACMI, NGV and SBS represented to Apple as part of those negotiations? How was that value quantified? What probity measures ensured that the same level of information and adequate compensation was offered to tenants? Do tenants’ contracts adequately protect them from actions that Fed Square as landlord might take to introduce competitors, as is the norm in formal retail precincts and shopping centres?

Given no public cultural space – most recently, the City Square – has ever survived untouched for more than a decade or two in Melbourne’s CBD, we also need to understand whether any historic understanding informs the board’s decision-making. After all, 50 per cent of City Square’s public space was lost to one private business when it was deemed a failure – that’s a pretty stark precedent. How Fed Square understands public, cultural and civic space in its local and global context is crucial to the success of their work.

But what marks that success? While the Fed Square Civic & Cultural Charter was written to guide its work, the implementation of that charter is unclear, as are its accountabilities. Who determines Fed Square’s key performance measures? Which measures are set by government and which by the board? On what basis?

Questions also exist for the Victorian government’s understanding of public space and cultural investment. If Fed Square is expected “to be internationally recognised as Melbourne’s inspirational public space” of “civic and cultural strengths”, why is there no public investment in our civic realm?

The biggest questions of all for the Victorian government are around how contemporary cultural precincts should be governed, managed and facilitated. Surely we can be a bit more ambitious for Fed Square than to see it run as a leased tenancies precinct struggling to strike a sustainable balance between profit and the public good?

What next steps might the Victorian government consider to ensure that Fed Square remains at the forefront of our state’s “civic and cultural strengths”? Will it rule out further privatisation such as that halving City Square and that risked by Apple’s “Town Square” push? Will it ensure that Victoria’s cultural ministers share oversight? And will it invest ambitiously in sustaining the “inspirational public space” that Melburnians value so greatly?

That inquiry can’t come soon enough.

 

Esther Anatolitis is Executive Director of NAVA and Deputy Chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts. She is a former director of ACMI, a former SBS employee, and has presented events at FedSquare in multiple capacities across its 15-year history. Esther has been an active contributor to this public space discussion and spoke at the Fed Square Debate on 13 February 2018.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Age on 28 April 2019