Sydney finally gets the destination museum it deserves



SYDNEY — Sydney Modern isn’t just the most important building in Sydney since Jørn Utzon’s magnificent Opera House. The new addition to the city’s premier art gallery is also a global test case for tackling some of the most difficult and important issues facing museums today.

Until now — and despite its enviable harborside location, a lovely walk across the Botanic Gardens from the Opera House — the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as the museum is called, has always been slightly underwhelming. The collection is not as deep or impressive as its equivalent in Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria, and its building is a patchwork of grand old neoclassical galleries and cramped modern add-ons.

Coming into a love of art in Sydney (where I was born), none of this bothered me. I loved the place, as you love a childhood home. But I recall, in 2017, guiding overseas guests through it. These people were excited to be in Sydney, astounded by its magically unfolding harbor, its ocean-facing beaches, its youth, heat and vibrancy. But the gallery that day seemed wan, provincial and jarringly out of touch with the cosmopolitan city outside. There was colonial art over here, English Pre-Raphaelites there. Asian art was off to the side in a rarely visited cul-de-sac. Aboriginal art was down three escalators on the lowest floor, farthest from the entrance. Many of the presentations required laborious explaining. At a certain point, I lost heart and suggested we all go for a drink. No one demurred.

All of that has changed. The Art Gallery of New South Wales now has two buildings, not one. Sydney Modern, as the new structure is provisionally called (it opened late last year), is right beside the old museum, whose galleries have in turn been reimagined.

Both buildings are on a hill that leads down to Woolloomooloo Bay, a narrow harbor inlet where luxury yachts are docked. The new structure, which almost doubles the overall exhibition area, is a series of interlinked, rectilinear pavilions cascading down a hill and over a freeway toward the harbor. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Japanese firm SANAA, it cost $230 million. Almost a third of the money came from private philanthropy. The rest was funded by the state government, which secured a massive windfall when it leased the state-owned electricity networks.

It’s a long way to travel, I realize, but American museum professionals engaged in rethinking their own museums should try to figure out what they can learn from Sydney Modern. Some of the specific lessons won’t be applicable. But that’s just the point: There is no replicable formula. Instead, there is a deep, underlying lesson: Be as dynamically and thoughtfully in tune with the city and culture around you as possible. Do the work yourself. Don’t copy others.

This appears to be the philosophy that guided director Michael Brand and his team in Sydney. They have succeeded brilliantly.

Realized against considerable early opposition, Sydney Modern was constructed during the pandemic and in the midst of ideological ructions convulsing museums worldwide. How should museums engage diverse audiences? What should they do about their historical biases, their connections to wealth and power, the dearth of art in their collections by women, Black artists and so on?

These questions took unique form in Australia, where the population of around 25 million struggles to tell a coherent story about itself. More than half of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was born elsewhere. The country is tightly connected to Asia. Its nearest neighbor, Indonesia, has the world’s biggest majority Muslim population. Its biggest trading partner is China.

Yet Australia is still a majority White country with a British king as head of state and a Union Jack on its flag. Culturally and politically, it is most closely aligned with two countries at opposite ends of the planet: Great Britain and the United States. Today, about 85 percent of the population lives on the coast in big, affluent cities lushly adorned with trees imported from overseas. But the imaginations of Australia’s city-dwellers are haunted by the continent’s vast and dry interior.

Australian art has been most original and compelling when engaged with this famously distinctive landscape. The story of its non-indigenous art is generally presented as a tale of artists sloughing off conventions inherited from Europe and, under the liberating pressure of modernism, inventing new ways of seeing and relating to their environment. Meanwhile, connection to land, on a deep, often awe-inspiring level, is at the heart of Aboriginal art, one of the most fascinating, disruptive phenomena in global contemporary art over the past half century.

To engage with all these discordant conditions, Sydney Modern has taken a bold approach. It has busted open the old, siloed categories — Aboriginal, colonial, European, Asian, modern and contemporary — and forced them into conversation.

This shake-it-all-up approach is a discernible vogue in museums worldwide. Usually, I don’t love it. It leads to murkiness and tendentiousness, and to curators elevating their own ideas over the integrity and singular force of individual artworks.

But the new hang in Sydney, across both buildings, is exhilarating and mind-expanding. It succeeds both because the premise is right (Australian culture really is a dynamic, mongrel thing) and because the process didn’t stop with breaking apart the old, outdated categories. It led the curators to propose new connections. And this has been done so sensitively and with such a strong feeling for intellectual, visual and emotional correspondences that the effect is liberating.

The entrance court to Sydney Modern, just a two-minute walk from the old art gallery, is conspicuously lacking in grandeur. Instead of walking up ziggurat-like steps (as in the Opera House) or passing between thick Ionic columns (as in the old gallery), you wander off the street into an outdoor court under a roof of clear wavy plastic propped up by skinny poles. This unassuming space, surrounded by native plants, reminded me of the plain-spoken, pavilion-style architecture of Australian public schools.

Once inside, you can veer right and enter a gallery devoted to Australian Aboriginal art or left for the book and gift shop. Or you can take the escalator and float down into the transparent heart of the museum.

Sydney Modern is trying, more than anything, to create an experience, not an education (the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive). Childlike openness, curiosity and inner calm appear to be driving principles behind the curators’ thinking. That’s made clear even before you enter the building through a glass passageway containing a small sculpture of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha (Lord of the People). One outdoor space has a dotted floral sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, while the entrance court has been colonized by several long-limbed, brightly colored sculptures by New Zealander Francis Upritchard.

A small creature piggybacking on one of Upritchard’s friendly giants builds a tower of clay balls. Inside, in a gallery overlooking the harbor, visitors can sit at a massive table rolling their own clumps of clay into small spheres. “Archive of Mind,” a participatory work by South Korea’s Kimsooja, is an invitation to meditate on life, art and communal actions — or perhaps just to empty your mind while enjoying a lovely view. Kimsooja’s work chimes not only with Upritchard’s and Kusama’s outdoor sculptures but with “Spirit House,” a sanctuary and shrine conceived by the Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei, one level down.

Is this all a case of contemporary art getting confused with a branch of the wellness industry — a trend I loathe? That’s the risk. But I found all four works disarming and likable. In any case, it’s not all cosmic serenity at Sydney Modern. There is challenging, disturbing and politically charged work to be found in both buildings.

The most talked-about feature of the new building is a World War II naval fuel bunker that has been converted by SANAA into a giant, underground gallery named the Tank. This exciting, dread-inducing space is internally supported by more than 100 concrete columns. It provides a dramatic counterpoint to the building’s sun-soaked upper reaches, with their glass walls supported by slender white poles.

Inaugurating the Tank is a dramatic installation of five massive sculptures by the Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas. Rojas’s hybrids of organic, geological and technological forms are displayed in darkness that is intermittently illuminated by roving spotlights. They evoke post-apocalyptic moods, but they are beautiful, entrancing objects.

Not everything purrs or fizzes quite as one would like. Breaking down art historical categories is fine, but it asks a lot of viewers to make sense of a prominent display, titled “Making Worlds,” that places Nina Chanel Abney and Barkley Hendricks (both African American painters) alongside Mabel Juli (an Aboriginal painter), Cy Twombly (the late American postwar artist), Mikala Dwyer (a brilliant contemporary Australian sculptor) and Lubna Chowdary (a ceramic artist born in Tanzania and raised in England, with Indian and Pakistani heritage). Many of the individual works are stellar, but the theme is so baggy as to be meaningless, and the wall labels have a rote, pseudo-academic quality.

Other displays — notably the Asian galleries in the old building and, in the new, a temporary exhibition titled “Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter” — struck me as models of ambitious curating on poignant, universal themes. “Dreamhome,” which was organized by Justin Paton, the gallery’s head of international art, includes work by Australia’s Tracey Moffatt and JD Reforma and by such international artists as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Isghaan Adams, Jeffrey Gibson, Simone Leigh, Hiraki Sawa, Danica Lundy and Samara Golden. A more pertinent theme (the homes we dream, the homes we flee, the homes we feel stuck in or try to reimagine) is hard to imagine.

So many of us today have more than one place in mind when we use the word “home.” It’s a concept that, as the gallery’s website notes, “trembles with pressure.” Fitting, then, that Sydney’s premier home for art now has more than one building, containing more than one idea of Australia.


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