Sydney Modern – Designing An Art Museum for the 21st Century

Challenges Ahead - The Offerings of Peace, 1923 Sculpture in Bronze, signed and dated Gilbert Bayes 1923 © Gilbert Bayes Charitable Trust, courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Developing a relationship with the imagery of the world in which we live is part of a life long learning process. The intrinsic benefits and artistic excellence of ‘art’ is often very hard to prove to either the public, or to number crunchers measuring results in monetary terms. Educationalists however would agree that ‘art’ is a very valuable tool for communication, creativity, cultural and social engagement for everyone.

During the last decade the major art institutions in Australia located in Brisbane city (QAGOMA) and Melbourne city (NGV) with its two locations, the International collection on St Kilda Road, and the Australian collection in Federation Square, have responded to the growing demand of their local population, increasing tourism and the growth of technology, expanding their spaces, their services and their collections.

The result is that the Art Gallery of NSW at Sydney is now only half the size of its Melbourne and Brisbane counterparts, a fact that seems to not go down well in the city that up until now, has regarded itself as the first and finest in the nation. It was on 24 April 1871 that a public meeting was convened to establish an Academy of Art at Sydney ‘for the purpose of promoting the fine arts through lectures, art classes and regular exhibitions.’ English architect Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914) designed the main wing of the earliest part of the building to house its collection.

It is still in use, originally designed in a classical style, one that symbolically represents both liberty and freedom and projects an image of a ‘temple to taste’. It opened in 1897 with two picture galleries with a further two opening in 1899.  A designated watercolour gallery was added in 1901 with the Grand Oval Lobby opening in 1902.

Today with later additions behind the original facade, the whole art gallery space stands in a parkland setting with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour. It is a bustling place, where on any Sunday you can take up a position near its grand Ionic columned portico to watch as people from all walks of life and all backgrounds arrive to contemplate and enjoy its many splendours.

Steven Lowy, President of the Board of Trustees and Michael Brand, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales joined forces recently to unveil a strategic vision and master plan for its considered redevelopment, which involves a major building project to be completed by 2021.

Dr Michael Brand said that despite the success of the current gallery in building one of Australia’s finest collections of Australian and international art, both historical and contemporary, the existing building alone was not able to meet current demand, let alone continue to serve its audience well into the 21st century.

They jointly said they wanted to create a ‘truly great art museum’, one which can take its place in the Asian century, in an inter-connected and digitized world’. “Whether ‘Sydney Modern’ becomes the name of the new component of this historic gallery is an open question,” Lowy said.

The current building now considered inadequate, is it seems an obstacle to attracting visitors and staging major exhibitions. “While the Gallery remains one of Australia’s leading art museums, it is woefully ill-equipped for the 21st century and lags well behind its peers,” Lowy said.

The most recent addition to the Art Gallery of NSW, the John Kaldor Family Gallery was created in 2010 by moving on-site storage off-site. Every inch of that new space is now packed with art.

2021 is a significant date in NSW in that it will be the 150th anniversary of its Art Gallery’s founding. The president of the Board of Trustees, Mr Steven Lowy said , “…we have the opportunity to create an iconic building that will take its place alongside the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge as an international beacon of modernity, creativity and the celebration of the human spirit”,

"Sydney Modern" an artist's Impression of the proposed Art Gallery of NSW expansion

Helping to shape savvy citizens for our ever-evolving society will certainly be a business of the arts sector during the next decade in Australia. This is a creative nation, but there are tough times ahead and arts organizations, and their advocates, will continually need to convince the public of the benefits they provide.

They need to safeguard the future of the arts per se in the midst of a world economic population paradigm shift, as developing countries move from subsistence economies to sustainable societies, all the while honing their own abilities to offer a quality product at a much more cost effective price.

We all like to assert that the arts maybe virtuous, however virtue doesn’t pay the bills or salaries of the people involved in either small or massive arts productions. Those at the top directing operations have a challenging time ahead in helping to imagine the future of art and how it is accessed in this country.

Cultural idealism was only one contributing factor to the series of events, which eventually lead to the foundation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the production of a purpose built building from 1909 to house its collections.

It had been an ongoing process since the establishment of a British colony in 1770 and included a period where ‘art’ was displayed in a building on Elizabeth Street known as ‘Clark’s Assembly Rooms’ where dancing was also taught.

The ongoing activities and members of the Sydney ‘art’ society and establishment of the New South Wales Academy of Art, which happened in 1871, became part of an impetus for a great change not fully realized until after the great International Exhibition at Sydney 1879-80.

This is when the ‘art’ exhibits displayed became a nucleus for the development of a ‘government’ collection housed in a purpose built structure nearby the enormous ‘Crystal Palace’.

It seems the original ‘Advisory Committee’ for the exhibition did not want ‘art’ displayed next to ‘commerce’. So, a hastily organized construction of a building known as the ‘arts annexe’ took place, which immediately suffered from damp. Then in 1883 termites invaded, the pesky little beasts seemingly having no regard for ‘fine art’ either.

A great many parallels could be drawn from this – suffice to say it became an ingrained ‘attitude’ that existed in Sydney for over a 100 years that basically believed that the so called fine and decorative arts should be kept apart, one being loftier than the other, rather than integral to and part of each other’s story.

This said more about the people involved at the higher eschelons who wanted the ‘art’ to be a measure of their own status, rather than of vital social and cultural importance for everyone.

Mr Lowy said “the Gallery would now begin a process of consultation with stakeholders to advance the proposal, including the NSW government, the Royal Botanic Gardens, transport authorities, the artist community and friends and supporters of the Gallery”.

Key elements of the proposal for the Sydney Modern initiative include a physical transformation designed to complement the existing Gallery. The idea is to double its size and expand the building northwards towards the harbour making use of much underutilised land and an existing land bridge and space, which is currently occupied by disused storage tanks

They want to hold a national and international architectural competition to produce a design for the new building, which will be significant and enable the Gallery to display the full richness of its collections, as well as showcase new acquisitions and major national and international exhibitions.

They certainly need to relocate those two spectacular small bronze sculptures that flank the inside of the entrance into somewhere with far more light and an ability for people to ‘walk around them’.

It is not surprising in this day and age that they also want to take advantage of technology to better engage audiences from around the world. The Art Gallery of NSW is and should be a lifelong learning centre. It also needs to better cater for non-English speaking visitors through smartphone apps that will provide opportunities to do that.

Greater collaboration with international art museums as well as plans to harnessing the support of Australia’s growing and influential expatriate community is seen as important, as it the ability to accommodate an increase in visitation from 1.3 million per annum to 2 million by 2021. This is including an increase in student visits from 100,000 to 300,000, quite a jump.

The gallery also needs much better transport connections between the Gallery and the city via its pedestrian access, the train and a new ferry wharf at Woolloomooloo.

Currently it’s a long hike around to the art gallery from major train stations and ferries in the town and not so pleasant on a boiling hot day or a rainy day.

They want to install a spectacular new grand entrance, with commissioned art works to link the existing heritage building with the new building… although I must admit a fondness for the old one, despite its difficulties. It does provide that feeling that as you enter you are walking into the history of our nation, of which you are an integral part.

It is in direct contrast to the Mordant Wing added at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which increased the size of the Art Gallery of NSW’s rival by almost 50 per cent. It did that at the expense of the entry through the old entrance of the former Maritime Services building, which was much more seductive than the awful soulless entrance space now.

Expanded cafes and restaurants, a roof-top garden and a terrace with views of the city and harbour Brand and Lowy say will provide a vibrant social hub for Sydney and extended opening hours will cater for people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. That’s all fine and an important aspect of any development but they need to go further.

An important aspect of any proposed new initiative should be an increase in public participation at art ‘events’. Having lots of people come to an event is good, but it is much more effective, instructive and fun in terms of real outcomes if the people are also invited to take part.

Providing a ‘silence room’ where anyone can leave their troubles outside the door and ‘seek out moments of peace and tranquility in a world that bombards us with information and stimulation’ dressed with suitable ‘calming’ art works would be good. Retail therapy temple Selfridges, London opened one recently so a Silence Room for an arts temple is just as appropriate.

It wasn’t a new idea either, in fact the store’s visionary founder Harry Gordon Selfridge first instigated it back in 1909 when he opened the store; the past informing the future.

People of the future too won’t just want to look at a work of art by say Claude Monet, they will also want to learn how to paint like Claude Monet.

Drawing is a valuable life skill; linking generations to communities and communities to culture. It is an integral aspect of art that helps us to think, to invent and to express and communicate our ideas regardless of our age or our ability. This is a fact art teachers everywhere know and so drawing activities for people of all ages should be paramount and encouraged.

Music too helps to make our life better; it’s fun, relaxing, and motivating and that is because music has a profound impact on our brains and our bodies. Drawing to music is a great way to go and there will be many other opportunities for curators and creatives to expand ideas of interacting with the art on display.

Charge "Vive L'Empereur! Charge du quatrième hussards à la bataille de Friedland, 14 juin 1807" by Édouard Detaille, 1891, oil on canvas. The Battle of Friedland was one of Napoléon I's greatest victories, over the Russians. 19th + 20th c European art houses part of the holding of British Victorian painting and sculpture, many collected from the earliest days of the foundation of the Gallery courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Mr Lowy said “…other art museums in Australia and across the region are already responding to the growing demand from local audiences and international visitors and Sydney risks being left behind by projects now underway in Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco”.

So if they are able to connect their ideas and initiatives through the arts to = great outcomes, helping to imagine the future, then Mr Brand and Mr Lowy will perhaps achieve a pinnacle of the art of what is possible.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

Watch the Video- Strategic Vision & Masterplan 6 March 2013


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