Sydney art gallery sizes up its future
Director clears first funding hurdle as he plans to expand Art Gallery of New South Wales
By Cristina Ruiz. Museums, Issue 248, July-August 2013
Published online: 02 August 2013
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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