From the window of his office, the Art Gallery of New South Wales director, Michael Brand, looks out on the sprawling new $344m gallery he spent the past decade trying to build, shepherding it through backlash, budgets, a $100m philanthropy drive and a global pandemic.
But now the gallery – known widely as Sydney Modern, though officially it still has not been named – has made it through its first summer. And Brand is feeling optimistic.
“Hundreds of thousands of visitors” have come through since it opened on 3 December, he says, although AGNSW wouldn’t provide a more specific number. He’s confident the expansion will raise annual attendance at AGNSW, which has averaged about 1.2 million in the past decade, to 2 million people – a figure floated pre-pandemic, drawn from the business case behind the project which is still confidential.
Walking into the gallery, designed by Japanese architects Sanaa, the overwhelming impression is one of light and space. Guests have been struck by the major curatorial shake-up – where work from emerging Australian artists hangs alongside international superstars – and the wide glass windows, which often draw the eye from the art to the landscapes outside. But both choices have raised some critical eyebrows too, the space deemed by some cluttered, confused and, ultimately, a distraction from the art.
The new hang acknowledges that Australian artists are now deeply enmeshed with the world, Brand says; that their work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And as for all the windows: “This is Sydney. What should we be doing with this amazing site overlooking the harbour, adjacent to the Botanic Gardens? … Why would you build a big concrete box?”
Over the years, critics debated the project’s purpose, its harbourside location, and whether Brand’s laser focus on fundraising for the building had pulled resources from its curation and public programs. The 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”. The gallery’s raucous opening nights and packed WorldPride event showed it is indeed a great place for a party.
But with the dust settling, Brand clearly feels vindicated by his gamble. “Both public and critical responses have been fantastic,” he says, pointing specifically to the Washington Post critic Sebastian Smee’s verdict, which declared it a triumph that could be instructive to US galleries. The decision to spotlight the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection, long held in the basement of the original building, has been widely lauded, as has the unique underground gallery known as the Tank, built into a former second world war oil tank long hidden beneath the Domain.
The expansion means AGNSW can now be more ambitious with its exhibitions and secure the kinds of blockbuster shows it had been missing out on. These instead have been going to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Brisbane’s Qagoma or the National Gallery of Victoria which, before the pandemic, saw almost double the number of visitors as AGNSW. “We got the building that we asked for, now we’ve got to do that,” Brand says.
But not everyone is convinced – notably two of Australia’s most high-profile art critics, John McDonald and Christopher Allen. Allen, in the Australian, questioned whether the building was at all effective as an art gallery, likening its design, complete with large central escalators, to “a shopping mall”. McDonald, meanwhile, questioned its long-term viability: after the initial excitement, how will the gallery continue to draw large crowds? “This can only be done with exhibitions and public programs, but even this may not cover the running costs, which will require a massive injection of funds from the state government,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Judith White, a former president of the Art Gallery Society and longtime critic of the Sydney Modern Project, echoes McDonald’s finance concerns. “The biggest issue is recurrent funding,” she says. Last September, NSW budget estimates revealed AGNSW’s operational funding from government had only increased from $39.5m to $41.8m in the year ahead of the opening.
Questioned during that estimates hearing by Labor’s John Graham, Brand described AGNSW as “a public-private partnership” and noted the government had ramped up its support over time, from $23.8m back in 2017. Graham, who is the state’s news arts minister, has since pledged to open up discussions about “long-term strategic investment” in the state’s arts sector. “For too long arts funding has been structured around short-term grants and funding splashes,” he told Guardian Australia.
For his part, Brand isn’t publicly lobbying for a funding boost. “We’ve almost doubled the size of the building, but that doesn’t mean you need to double the size of the staff,” he says. The curatorial team has, however, expanded by 10 people since mid-2019, according to AGNSW.
Most of the exhibitions in the new building are set to run through to the end of this year, if not into 2024. In November though, almost a year after it opened, the gallery will host its first marquee show, a monographic exhibition of the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. This will be one of the largest ever presentations of a female artist in Australia, AGNSW says, running across the 1,300-sq-metre major exhibition gallery and the Tank. “We can do this show on a scale that would be impossible in [the original] building,” Brand says.
Before then there are a few loose ends: first, the name. The plan is to give both the new and the original buildings Indigenous names – if long-running community consultations, which have reportedly been vexed, can settle on a solution all parties are happy with.
Then there is the final of nine original commissions made by the gallery for the Sydney Modern Project: a striking 3,000-sq-metre living artwork by the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, which has been beset by delays. It’s understood debate over the piece has been tense, including the plan for Indigenous cultural burning practices at the site, which spans the space between AGNSW’s new gallery and the original building.
Brand’s office window looks down on to the half-built work. “I look at it every day,” he says, adding it’s now on track to be completed by mid-year. “There have been some robust discussions,” he admits. “But that wouldn’t be the first time in the art world.”