Sydney’s new art gallery resists criticism in its first few months

From his office window, Art Gallery of New South Wales director Michael Brand watches the sprawling new $344 million gallery he’s been trying to build over the past decade, guiding it through backlash, budgets, a philanthropic campaign $100 million and a global pandemic.

But now the gallery – widely known as Sydney Modern, though it hasn’t officially been named yet – is past its first summer. And Brand is feeling optimistic.

“Hundreds of thousands of visitors” have passed since it opened Dec. 3, he says, though AGNSW didn’t give a more specific number. He is confident that the expansion will raise annual attendance at AGNSW, which has averaged about 1.2 million over the past decade, to 2 million people – a figure launched before the pandemic, drawn from the business case behind the project which is still confidential.

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Upon entering the gallery, designed by Japanese architects Sanaa, the overwhelming impression is one of light and space. Guests were impressed by the major curatorial makeover – where the work of emerging Australian artists is displayed alongside international superstars – and the expansive glass windows, often drawing the eye from the art to the landscapes outside. But both choices also raised some critical eyebrows, the space considered by some to be messy, confusing and ultimately a distraction from the art.

The new bloc recognizes Australian artists are now deeply enmeshed with the world, says Brand; that their work does not exist in a vacuum. And as with all windows: “This is Sydney. What are we supposed to do with this fantastic site overlooking the harbour, adjacent to the Botanical Gardens? …Why would you build a big concrete box?”

AGNSW Director Michael Brand and former NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet at the Sydney Modern

‘Responses from audiences and critics have been fantastic’: AGNSW director Michael Brand and former premier Dominic Perrottet at Sydney Modern. Photography: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Over the years, critics debated the project’s purpose, its location on the harbor, and whether Brand’s laser focus on fundraising for the building had siphoned resources away from its curation and public agendas. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating dismissed it as a “land grab” that was “about money, not art”, describing the proposed building as “a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery”. art”. The gallery’s boisterous opening nights and busy WorldPride event proved that it really is a great place for a party.

But with the dust settling, Brand clearly feels vindicated by his bet. “The public and critical responses have been fantastic,” he says, pointing in particular to the verdict from Washington Post critic Sebastian Smee, who declared it a triumph that could be instructive for US galleries. The decision to highlight the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection, long housed in the basement of the original building, has been widely lauded, as has the unique underground gallery known as the Tank, built in a former WWII oil tank long hidden under the Dominion.

The expansion means that AGNSW can now be more ambitious with its exhibitions and secure the kind of successful shows it has been missing out on. These instead went to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Qagoma in Brisbane or the National Gallery of Victoria which, before the pandemic, saw nearly twice as many visitors as AGNSW. “We have the building we asked for, now we have to make it,” says Brand.

But not everyone is convinced, especially two of Australia’s highest profile art critics, John McDonald and Christopher Allen. Allen, in Australia, questioned whether the building was effective as an art gallery, likening its design, complete with large central escalators, to “a shopping centre”. McDonald’s, meanwhile, has questioned its long-term viability: After the initial excitement, how will the gallery continue to draw large crowds? “This can only be done with public exhibitions and programs, but even that may not cover running costs, which will require a massive injection of funds from the state government,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Judith White, former president of the Art Gallery Society and longtime critic of the Sydney Modern Project, echoes McDonald’s financial concerns. “The biggest problem is recurring funding,” she says. Last September, NSW budget estimates revealed that AGNSW’s operating funding from the government had increased from just $39.5 million to $41.8 million in the year before it opened.

Asked at the hearing about the estimates by Labor’s John Graham, Brand described AGNSW as “a public-private partnership” and noted that the government had increased its support over time, from $23.8m in 2017. Graham, who is the state’s news and arts secretary, has since pledged to open discussions about “long-term strategic investments” in the state’s arts sector. “For too long, funding for the arts has been structured around short-term grants and funding splashes,” he told Guardian Australia.

For his part, Brand is not publicly lobbying for increased funding. “We’ve nearly doubled the size of the building, but that doesn’t mean you have to double the size of your staff,” he says. The curatorial team, however, has expanded by 10 people since mid-2019, according to AGNSW.

Most of the exhibitions in the new building will continue until the end of this year, if not 2024. In November, however, almost a year after opening, the gallery will host its first marquee exhibition, a monographic exhibition of the L French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. This will be one of the largest presentations by a female artist in Australia, says AGNSW, taking place across the large 1,300 square meter exhibition gallery and the Tank. “We can do this show on a scale that would be impossible [the original] building,” says Brand.

Before that there are some outstanding issues: First, the name. The plan is to give indigenous names to both the new and original buildings if long-standing community consultations, which have reportedly been angered, can find a solution that all parties are happy with.

Then there is the latest of the gallery’s nine original commissions for the Sydney Modern Project: an impressive 3,000 square meter living artwork by artist Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi Jonathan Jones, which has been plagued by delays. It is understood that debate surrounding the work has been tense, including the plan for Indigenous cultural burning practices at the site, which spans the space between the new AGNSW gallery and the original building.

Brand’s office window overlooks the half-built work. “I look at it every day,” he says, adding that it’s now on track to be completed by mid-year. “There were some intense discussions,” he admits. “But it wouldn’t be the first time in the art world.”

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