Australian War Memorial funding dwarfed that of other cultural institutions in Coalition’s final years

<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The Australian War Memorial received more funding than the rest of Australia’s national cultural institutions put together, in the last two years of the Coalition government.

The National Gallery of Australia and the National Library of Australia are among the nation’s peak cultural institutions warning their operations, collections and even buildings are under threat unless emergency funding of tens of millions of dollars are allocated in May’s federal budget.

The Australian War Memorial is undergoing a major refurbishment, with $500m allocated by the Morrison government, topped up with a further $50m in March 2022. This $550m is on top of more than $110m in recurrent funding the memorial received in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 federal budgets.

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Over the same time, the country’s national collecting agencies – the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, the Australian Maritime Museum and the National Film and Sound Archive – collectively received $400m from the Coalition government, as efficiency dividends saw budgets slashed over successive years.

The national collecting institutions were not included in the $300m national cultural policy announced by the arts minister, Tony Burke, in January.

Burke indicated at the time that additional support for the national cultural institutions was being considered for the May budget.

In January the National Library warned its expansive public digital archives could cease operation, with its last tranche of funding set to run out in July.

On Wednesday photos emerged of water leaks and mould in the National Gallery of Australia’s upper level, forcing staff to pull artworks from the walls.

The gallery says it is in urgent need of $265m over the next 10 years – about half of what has been allocated to the war memorial for its upgrade – to bring the 55 year-old heritage listed building up to standard.

The Australian War Memorial is scheduled to finish its major public works in 2025.

A spokesperson for the veteran affairs minister, Matt Keogh, told the Guardian no additional funding had been allocated to the memorial’s redevelopment program under the Albanese government.

Additional funding for the memorial had been achieved through corporate sponsorship and donations, the spokesperson said, which had gone towards exhibitions and programs independently commissioned and curated by memorial staff.

The memorial has attracted criticism for its reliance on sponsorship from arms manufacturers, including Thales Australia, Rolls Royce, QinetiQ, Polaris, BAE Systems and Boeing. The memorial’s former director of seven years, former Liberal politician Brendan Nelson, was appointed president of Boeing Global in January.

The minister’s spokesperson said the expansion project was not being funded through sponsorship.

“The memorial, like many similar institutions around the country, has received support from a range of funding sources outside of government. This includes funding from defence industry contractors,” the statement said.

“All sponsorship agreements are considered carefully by the memorial’s executive and council to ensure they align with the memorial’s act, mission and purpose.”

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A spokesperson for the memorial said the institution was currently operating at a loss, which was budgeted to continue for the “foreseeable future”, with operating losses of $2.3m in 2020-21 and a $2.5m in 2021-22.

“While the development project received a significant amount of funding tied to capital expenditure, the memorial has not yet received funding to operate these new galleries,” the spokesperson said.

“Our general operating funding has been negatively impacted by inflationary pressures and the memorial is currently using cash reserves, and has for some years, to supplement operating costs.”