Powerhouse Museum
Three lace designs made from fragments of Coca-Cola cans (C), fishing line (R) and plastic bags (L) are prepared by Sydney's Powerhouse Museum specialist lace curator Rosemary Shephard February 18, 1998, for an upcoming international lace exhibition. Reuters/David Gray

What was projected to be Australia’s Met Gala has become an expensive bill for taxpayers. The Powerhouse Museum’s black-tie dinner in February cost Australians nearly $140,000 after it failed to generate enough funds.

The star-studded event was meant to be a fundraiser for the Australian Fashion Fund, which launched on that night on Feb 1. However, according to the documents under the Freedom of Information laws (first reported by the ABC), it not only failed to raise funds, it also burdened taxpayers with a bill.

The cash expenditure for the party was $388,391, which included even production ($256,062), design and advertising ($30,000), signage ($25,000), audio production ($15,000), hospitality staff ($13,515), airfares and transport ($10,123), and media coverage ($5,999). Revenue from sponsorship and ticket sales was only $173,181. This left a deficit of $215,210, which was taken from the museum’s own budget. And since the museum is publicly funded, taxpayers had shouldered the loss.

According to the documents obtained by Fairfax Media, less than half of the 264 invited guests — 121, to be precise — paid for their $1000-a-seat ticket. The number was far lower than the museum had anticipated. There was $1,150 collected in donations from the celebrities and fashionistas who attended the event, the largest of these was a $1000 donation and three donations of $50 each. The total amount raised was $78,500, which came partly from ticket sales. This meant that more than $137,000 was paid by the public.

NSW MP Robert Borsak, representative from Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, said there was “something shonky” and “very, very smelly” about the gala as it spent so much just to raise so little.

“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?” the ABC quoted him as saying.

But despite the apparent financial loss, the museum has insisted that the black tie ball was successful. A spokeswoman for MAAS — from the Powerhouse Museum’s new name of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — said that the ball was a success in terms of its objectives.

“The ball was successful in achieving its objectives by introducing the Centre for Fashion to key stakeholders, building relationship 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,” she said.

Nevertheless, Borsak said Powerhouse Museum director Dolla Merrillees should quit for wasting people’s money. Merrillees is currently on leave until the end of July.