The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Sydney Modern campus is the biggest cultural project to arrive in the Harbour City since the Opera House. As it opens this December, we explore what it’s set to deliver as a new global art icon.
It’s hard to imagine much more of a dream job than this,” chimes Art Gallery of New South Wales’ director, Dr Michael Brand.
“It’s a beautiful piece of architecture and it just keeps getting better and better the more art we put in it.”
Robb Report has caught Brand between site tours in the busy lead-up to the opening of the ambitious and long-awaited AGNSW Sydney Modern campus. The positive feedback from benefactors and guests, as the site starts to come to life, has put him in a good mood.
And with good reason: the $344 million project ($244m in government funding, $100m from private donors) is indeed a dream gig. More than a decade in the making, and five years since being greenlit by the government, Sydney Modern is the most important cultural development to happen to the Harbour City since the Opera House opened in 1973.
It will not only inject more life into Woolloomooloo and the Royal Botanic Garden/Domain precinct but enhance Sydney’s cultural offering—cementing the state gallery’s place among the international art community.
“When you build a new art museum building, because of the costs and the importance, you have an opportunity to make a significant piece of architecture. And we wanted to do that,” says Brand.
“But for me, good architecture in the city also means public space and landscape. And so we wanted this building to be a beautiful transition between backwards and forwards, art, architecture and landscape.”
Created by globally renowned Pritzker Prize-winning architects, SANAA (led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa), the building proves to be a masterpiece.
A doubling of the existing gallery’s space, the new wing offers a height of 5.5 metres (up from 3.6 metres) with almost 50 percent more real estate on the walls and floors. Below the main building is a new exhibition space known as the Tank— a subterranean, decommissioned World War II fuel-storage facility that has been repurposed and reshaped into a unique and moody venue.
It will debut with work by award-winning ArgentinePeruvian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, best known for his large-scale and site-specific sculptural installations. Creating a more flexible space that considers new and emerging art forms is vital to ensuring AGNSW is a world-class gallery of the present and the future, says Brand.
“Not all art has to be big, but there is a lot of big art around. And if you have the space, you can do some really ambitious installations for exhibitions. It just gives us the flexibility to be part of that international network of art and exhibitions moving around the world.”
Trickling down the rockside to Woolloomooloo from Art Gallery Road’s ground level, glass frontages maximise natural light and through their transparency, bring more buzz to the local precinct. The contrast with the existing gallery building’s colonial, opaque image is stark, but managed via public space.
“I love our existing building, with its beautiful sandstone façade. But if you’ve never been to an art museum before, you don’t know what goes on inside.” Being a public art museum drove SANAA’s desire to make the art even more, well, public—that is, art visible from the street.
“People can see other people in there, they can see families, younger people, older people, people in wheelchairs, people there with friends. I think it’s a really important thing that we demystify it a bit for the broader audience.”
The use of green space also introduces two public plazas, rooftop areas, 24- hour accessible art garden and a new commission by Wiradyuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, bíal gwiyúŋo (the fire is not yet lighted), which connects the two buildings and invites reflections on First Nation history.
Furthermore, the design and its minimal impact on the waterfront location and wider environment has seen it already achieve the highest environmental standard—a 6-star Green Star rating by The Green Building Council of Australia.
One question that has framed the new building regards what it offers against Sydney’s most recent large-scale art gallery—the harbourside Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). It’s about context, apparently.
The art set to be delivered by Sydney Modern/AGNSW is exhibited within a historical context. That is, art by the world’s oldest culture now sets the tone. Visitors are greeted at the front door by the Yiribana Gallery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, which was moved from a lower floor in the existing gallery to the new building’s central entranceway.
It sees more than 160 new works, commissions and acquisitions, and communicates the importance of community and country to gallery visitors as soon as they step through the door.
“Some works in the new Yiribana Gallery consider notions of care and guidance through familial relationships,” explains the gallery’s senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Cara Pinchbeck.
“While others offer philosophies for living and profile the intricacies of cultural inheritance or examine the ongoing complexities of history and resilience.” Alongside gems from AGNSW’s 150-year-old collection, a handful of new commissions representing Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, will debut, including works by Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Karla Dickens, Simryn Gill, Yayoi Kusama, Richard Lewer, Lisa Reihana and Francis Upritchard.
Few however, are arguably as unique and intriguing as Lee Mingwei’s meditative Spirit House. Pushing forward the notion of what it means to experience art in a gallery setting, Spirit House is an intimate, completive space that can only be experienced by one visitor at a time. Hidden away from the main pavilions and solely illuminated by sunlight that falls from an oculus above, the space houses a bronze Buddha.
On occasion, it can be found holding a wrapped riverstone, which visitors are invited to take with them as a grounding guide for their own spiritual journey. Mingwei’s intention is that once the stone has served its purpose, visitors return to the gallery to pay gratitude and leave the stone for another to take.
Set in motion by a profoundly spiritual moment the Taiwanese–American artist had with a Buddha from the AGNSW’s collection while visiting over a decade ago, the experimental installation is unlike anything Sydney has before seen— so special and so unique that it directly informed SANAA’s design.
“Everyone there is so brave,” Mingwei offers of Brand and his team.
“I think Michael really, really opened up a completely different way of how a person can relate to museums, because at least for the past decade, the discourse has been around asking what the role of a museum is, because they were established in colonial times.” The time for changing art’s landscape is now.
“How does [a major art institution] relate to us in a contemporary society, where we talk postcolonial mission and the world? I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s an interesting point of departure and discourse for people to re-examine and reinvent the role of the museum in our lives” Sydney Modern will undoubtedly bolster Sydney’s reputation as a truly global creative city. To quantify the impact, the NSW government estimates that the gallery’s opening will inject more than $1 billion into the economy over the next two decades. While AGNSW says that it will increase (and hopefully diversify) gallery visitation by more than two million people a year. From a cityplanning perspective, the new build will eventually forge a cultural oasis away from, but close enough to the CBD.
“As Australia’s global city, Sydney has an incredible reputation as a destination for cultural tourists,” says Benjamin Franklin, NSW minister for tourism, Aboriginal affairs, the arts and regional youth.
“Arts and culture is central to our identity as a state, and intrinsic to how we interpret the world and our place in it.” Franklin further notes that this year alone, the NSW Government spent $1.4 billion on arts and creativerelated infrastructure.
“Not only do we have the best artists and creative organisations in the country, but from our regional arts centres to the Sydney Opera House, we also have the best theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums. The Art Gallery of NSW now joins the myriad assets that enhance NSW’s reputation as a creative powerhouse, and a desirable place to live, work and visit.” Mingwei has previously exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious art institutions—New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art; London’s Tate Modern, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and Centre Pompidou, Paris, among others. He agrees that the new AGNSW campus and all it will bring is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city and all comers to forge a new relationship to art.
“Sydney Modern is going to be, and will be, so different from everything else because of the local heritage and the Aboriginal DNA within that institution. And there is nowhere in the world doing that.”
He sees it, in fact, as a newfound global role model. “I think Sydney Modern will definitely have its own special place in the world.”
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