Openings Museums Australia

Sydney art gallery sizes up its future

Director clears first funding hurdle as he plans to expand Art Gallery of New South Wales

Australian art had to make way temporarily for Picassos lent by the Musée National Picasso

The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney (AGNSW) has received A$10.8m ($9.9m) from the State government to finance the planning stages of a major expansion project, which would see the construction of a new building and double the size of the institution. The money will be used over the next two years for feasibility and engineering studies related to the use of land next to the gallery’s existing 19th-century home, and to launch an international architectural competition.

“We are currently half the size of galleries in Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane,” says Michael Brand, the Australian-born director who joined the gallery last year, having spent five years leading the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “We desperately need more space for temporary exhibitions and to show different art forms [such as video and film] and present different learning opportunities.”

The expansion project coincides with a major overhaul of the gallery’s aims, which include forming new partnerships with museums in Australia and abroad, and catering to an increasingly global audience. The effort to transform the institution, both physically and conceptually, has been dubbed Sydney Modern, a name intended to be “forward-looking, bold and international”, Brand says.

The trustees’ commitment to rethinking the gallery’s future was a major reason for Brand’s return to Australia, he says. “I was always keen to come back here and make some sort of contribution… their level of ambition really appealed to me.” Brand says the 2008 gift to the gallery of 200 works of international contemporary art assembled over 50 years by the textile magnate John Kaldor also made the post “super-attractive”. The donation, including works by Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons, Donald Judd and Andreas Gursky, transformed the museum’s holdings, giving it the best contemporary collection in the country.

The installation of the Kaldor collection in a newly renovated suite of galleries “really showed there was no more space in the [existing] building”. Without more space, “the trustees realised there could be no major steps in our future”, Brand says. 

A new building, which Brand hopes will be completed by the gallery’s 150th anniversary in 2021, would enable the gallery to host travelling shows, which currently stretch its resources to the limit. To make room for a show of Picassos on loan from the Musée National Picasso in Paris last year, the museum had to temporarily remove from display its 19th- and 20th-century Australian collections. But Brand is keen to stress that the new space would not just be used for blockbuster shows. There would be collection displays, including additional room for a “broader experience of Aboriginal art and culture” and works on loan from partner institutions, Brand says. He recently returned from a trip to China, where he signed a letter of intent for cultural collaboration with the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.

“There’s no way I can buy everything I want to have in the collection, but just because we can’t buy art [from certain cultures], it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be interested in them and that our public shouldn’t see them. A once-in-a-decade blockbuster can’t be the only way of putting those cultures in front of our viewers.” There will be other partnerships in Asia, “broader links with the Islamic world” and more relationships with institutions in the US. Brand is talking to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) about collaborations, the first of which is a survey exhibition of American painting. It is due to open in Sydney in November and has been co-ordinated by Lacma with loans from major US museums.

A new building is likely to cost “several hundred million dollars”, but Brand says he is optimistic about fundraising. “I had a very good experience in the US, where they’re real masters of this sort of activity; I have a good sense of how to do it, how to be realistic about it, what it takes to succeed.”

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13 Aug 13
16:40 CET


Bravo, Mr. Brand. As an American who is lucky enough to visit the Gallery of NSW every couple of years, I applaud the improvements that have appeared under his new directorship. The liberation of contemporary indigenous art from the basement 'Yiribana' gallery and its integration within the rest of the collection - the pairing of Richard Long's "Stone Line" with the graphic songlines of Gloria Petyarre's "Awelye for the mountain desert lizard" series of canvases has resulted in an installation that is nothing less than sublime. The pairing of heroic Tiwi Pukamani (graveposts) collected by a previous pathbreaking director, Tony Tuckson, with Sidney Nolan's helmeted Ned Kelley portrait is equally inspired. Even the Gallery bookstore is better organized and more appealingly displayed. The Gallery expansion is much needed and could actually improve its site, now occupied by a huge, unsightly water tank - as long as the mistakes made in the new, unsightly MCA addition can be avoided.

7 Aug 13
21:49 CET


Why do all new museum directors come to their job with a hard hat for ambitious property development instead of ideas for expanding audiences? There is nothing in Dr Brand's vision which can't be done in the current gallery. The gallery does not need to be bigger, but it does need to invest in better education programs and initiatives to engage audiences across NSW. Last time I looked it was the Art Gallery of NSW but you wouldn't know it from the gallery's programs. Bad luck if you live in Broken Hill or Brewarrina. Dr Brand should spend some of the $10m on fixing the content of the gallery's website. Less than half the works in a relatively small collection are even photographed and most have just a bare description of the artist and title. Pathetic. But property development is more sexy than content development even for art museum directors.

5 Aug 13
16:35 CET


Brave words, Mr Brand. But I question the expansion of AGNSW to cover "Aboriginal art and culture". There is so much pressure today to present Indigenous art as 'contemporary', curators are denied any opportunity to add ethnographic explanation to artworks. What is needed is a separate National Indigenous Culture Institution to provide the background to 40,000 years of Aboriginal survival in Australia and to offer multi-media and performative ways into the complexity of a culture that we denied existing for the first 200 years of white history here. Then your visitors to Sydney Modern will arrive with the confidence to appreciate artworks that have daunted no less a figure than Turner Prize-winner, Grayson Perry, who admitted to lacking the connoisseurship to enjoy them in The Times.

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