Lucy Turnbull named chair of Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House will be led by two women for the first time in its 47-year history following the appointment of the former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull as its chair.

Ms Turnbull replaces former Macquarie Bank chief executive Nicholas Moore, who ends his second term as head of the Sydney Opera House Trust on December 31.

Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron with new chair Lucy Turnbull.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The appointment comes at a critical juncture for the iconic building as it emerges from lockdown, completes $300 million in capital works and prepares for its 50th-anniversary celebrations in 2023.

Ms Turnbull's appointment was confirmed by NSW arts minister Don Harwin and applauded by chief executive Louise Herron who said the new chair brought a strong understanding of the role of the Opera House, "its heritage, its marvel, and its potential".

Ms Herron said she looked forward to a strong and collaborative partnership.

Ms Turnbull, who was Sydney's first female lord mayor, said her gender-breaking appointment amounted to "big steps no matter what institution is involved".

Former Howard government minister Helen Coonan had been acting chair of the Opera House Trust in 2015 when Ms Herron was chief executive but had not remained in that role permanently.

Ms Herron acknowledged her shared reign with Ms Turnbull was a significant "moment" for the Opera House but "that's the point, it should not be an issue".

Ms Turnbull was credited with seeding the idea of recognising Indigenous history at Bennelong Point, which eventually became Badu Gili, the sunset sails lighting that explored First Nations stories.Credit:Daniel Boud

The well-connected Ms Turnbull, who is the wife of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, is expected to be a more visible chair than her predecessor who brought investment experience but preferred to work quietly behind the scenes.

Ms Turnbull said she intended to resign as trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW to focus on her "exciting" role advancing the interests of the flagship cultural institution to community and government.

The Opera House is a really special building, globally recognised and a true example of Australia and Sydney exceptionalism.

Both Ms Herron and Ms Turnbull will be rattling the tin for private philanthropic support at a time when there is already a great call on benefactors from Sydney Modern and Parramatta Powerhouse and other arts companies trying to survive COVID-19.

"It's been a difficult year for all cultural institutions to put it politely," Ms Turnbull said.

''Everything is never easy in a recession and pandemic but the Opera House is an incredible institution and its achievements really speak for itself. It's a major magnet for tourists and when you see around the Opera House, in normal times the number of visitors it's something to behold. The more we can get back to that position the better life will be."

The Sydney Opera House is expected to post a $7 million operating deficit in 2019-20, in the aftermath of COVID-19 and on top of the Concert Hall closure.

Once the full consequences of the pandemic flow through and the Concert Hall reopens in 2022 the Opera House is aiming for a better than break-even operating position. "It's of far more value to us, to give inspiring artistic experiences to the community rather than have undue funds in the bank," Ms Herron said.

The pair first met in 2012 when Ms Turnbull was head of urban policy think tank the Committee for Sydney.

"I could not believe what an energetic, focused, and collaborative leader she was and how fearless and happy to discuss any topic and discuss it from all sides," Ms Herron said.

Ms Herron credited Ms Turnbull with seeding the idea of recognising Indigenous history at Bennelong Point which eventually became Badu Gili, the daily sunset sails lighting that explored First Nations stories.

Their paths have crossed many times since, with Ms Turnbull a frequent visitor to the Opera House with grandchildren Jack and Alice, and both women sharing a love of contemporary dance.

As a schoolgirl in 1973, Ms Turnbull attended the opening of the Sydney Opera House in the company of her godfather Tony Larkins and remembers it as an exciting spectacle.

"The Opera House is a really special building, globally recognised and a true example of Australia and Sydney exceptionalism," Ms Turnbull said.

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