News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Art Gallery of NSW: A shadow of its former self

| |

Cast your eye around these rooms reader, and ask yourself “Why would the Art Gallery of NSW need $400 million dollars worth of new space?”.There is no doubt that round two of its international competition has fixed on a very fine architectural firm: SANAA Tokyo — should the money ever be found to undertake the commission. However Sydney has a reputation for handing out architectural carrots and snatching them back. It was this same firm which was chosen from an international competition in 1997 to design the extension to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay, only to see it handed to a Berlin firm, Sauerbruch Hutton in 2001. That plug was pulled too and a small local committee chose a youngish Sydney architect to carry out the project on an all but impossible budget.

Former director of the AGNSW Edmund Capon had more curtain calls than Maria Callas, before finally calling it a day in 2011 after 33 years at the helm. Many wish he hadn’t. The exhibitions program he presided over was consistently excellent, memorable and invariably balancing the scholarly with the popular. Vast tracts of the gallery space were never alienated or closed for long, even when ambitious exhibitions were being installed. Another bonus was the sense of theatre he introduced to events: the institution is now utterly devoid of the sparks that flew off him like a Catherine wheel.


In their place, the chill hand of bureaucracy has descended. The atmosphere is leaden. Many loyal and talented staff have been shown the door, membership of the Art Gallery Society has shrunk, attendances free fell in 2013 and 2014, and the exhibition program with the exception of the remarkable show Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, has been both bleak and bland. The pop art show came along late in the day — some 40 years too late — to generate little more than polite curiosity, as we now live in a 24- hour cycle of ‘pop’.

And this brings us to the use — or misuse –of the already generous spaces in the gallery, which Brand recently dismissed as an “air conditioned box”. A visit this month, will reveal a single work belonging to the Sherman Foundation swallowing the entire main court, and the vast and beautifully renovated spaces of the former basement seem to be all but empty bar a handful of obscure and unlovely works — rationed one or two, to a room.

(There is a case to be made that the proposed $400 million cost of the AGNSW should be spent elsewhere. There is talk that the Powerhouse Museum, whose design in the 1980s championed a novel architectural excursion over any consideration of how its vast holdings could see the light of day, should build a new campus — possibly in Parramatta. Zero public transport makes its current Ultimo location a challenge to visit. Its collections are vast, fascinating and in some cases rare, which makes the idea of two museums taking the place of one, not only welcome, but positively thrilling.)

Author Peter Robb suggested in an essay for The Monthly (August 2014) “Art Gallery NSW’S Michael Brand, Adventures in the Artefact Business : “Over the years, and especially in the last few decades, a relay of different architects has extended the reach of the tiny original in a natural progression that’s always enticing you around another corner or on to a new level. Its proportions are always human. The spaces, nearly all of them, have a rare blend of dignity, welcome and good light.” ‘Human proportions’ and ‘dignity’ are key elements here.


You know that something has gone terribly wrong when an institution establishes a ‘department of activation’ and suggests that a new recruit will “create, implement and lead a major fundraising strategy to enable the gallery to significantly grow its position”. You may be alert, reader, if you’re an art lover, but you’ll be alarmed if you take George Orwell’s view of how susceptible the English language is to abuse.

The very notion of a much-admired gallery feeling some requirement to “grow its position” is laughable. In a democracy where funds are required for education, infrastructure and health, there is little possibility of competing with, for example, the Saudis, who plan to build 230 museums as part of a programme to illuminate their country’s culture. Islam, which came along rather late in the day, has in some ways obscured the country’s Neolithic and early post-Christian era’s archaeological and cultural treasures but even so, 230 structures feels like an overly ambitious plan. Perhaps it is time for the AGNSW to be examining the cornucopia of their existing collections and finding new associations between them to illuminate them to its visitors, rather than expanding their floor plans.


Take the example of the soon-to-retire director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor. His unmatched contribution was to completely reposition the museum and its collection in the eyes of visitors all over the world. As Apollo magazine writer Tiffany Jenkins put it in its April issue: “Neil MacGregor transformed the reputation of the museum. It is now seen domestically and internationally as playing a vital role in understanding the human world — our shared past and present. And he achieved this without losing intellectual rigour. MacGregor has maintained the respect of scholars, and earned the esteem of modernisers — quite an accomplishment. Leaders of comparable institutions and organisations look upon him with envy.” Around the world people tuned into his BBC4 podcasts A History of the World in 100 Objects and Germany: Memories of a Nation).

One might speculate that Brand is keen to mirror the accomplishments of his friend Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, (they met at Harvard and edited three books on Indian Art together). However Lowry’s time there has not been an unblemished one. As writer Bob Colacello writes in Vanity Fair (“The Met v.s MoMA, New York’s Art Museums at War”, February 2015) “Glenn D. Lowry, the Museum of Modern Art’s director of two decades, seems to elicit criticism and controversy at every turn … MoMA’s announcement, in April 2013, that its latest extension along West 53rd Street would require the demolition of the adjacent American Folk Art Museum set off a firestorm of vitriol, much of it directed at Lowry himself”.


Perhaps Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, in echoing certain sentiments about MoMA, is providing a template for how many might now viewing the AGNSW. “I don’t think MoMA is dead in the water, however, an institution that I revere, is in a period of going slightly down in everybody’s estimation,” he wrote.

[box]Images of interior galleries at the Art Gallery of NSW taken by the author on Tuesday June 16 at 3.30pm[/box]

7 responses to “Art Gallery of NSW: A shadow of its former self

  1. Several years of insular lethargy from the boards of sydney’s cultural institutions.

    The Biennale board made a curatorial choice that was always likely to deliver a poor event.

    A couple of odd years from STC and Belvoir – does anyone keep statistics on the percentage of the audience that leaves after interval.

    Both the MCA and AGNSW just don’t seem to be interested in much at all anymore.

    The light art component of Vivid declines year on year.

    strange days indeed

  2. The thought of Edmund Capon somehow back at AGNSW makes me ill. It was because he was there for 33 years! Repeat 33 years. That AGNSW is now in a hole. Think on that. It is quite possible for things to look good on the surface but actually be rotting at the base. The mailaise of our State and National Galleries has been going on for decades. The reason? The Big Institutions get all the money so therefore end up controlling everything. However those Institutions are an arm of Government so have to be obviously conservative. Risk taking is rare but but does occur at times.

    Also as an arm of Government the people who work in the Big Institutions are employed by Govt and are therefore public servants and enmeshed in the public service system….and we all know what that means. Again this leads to an even stricter flattening of new ideas. Add to this a push for philantrophy and we get a small group of players (such as Kaldor) having far to much influence on an already small scene. In the end, and this article is really speaking about an End, we get inertia as no one can do anything.

    What is most concerning to me is that individual artists not aligned with the 3 or 4 big galleries and a small group of Gatekeepers are now no longer heard at all. We become Fodder for a system entirely run by public servants. As there is no real criticism in Australia (John MacDonald is now in soft cock retirement mode) evrything depletes even further. I personally have never seen the Kaldor Wing look any good. Its a pale regional version of any International contemporary art display. However the current show looks the pits!

    I could on and I have but no one is at all interested in it. I don’t go to any Museums in Australia now nor the sad Biennale of Sydney which should be stopped. Next year it looks like it has more curators than artists. No other ideas are allowed to enter into the very small closed world of Australian Governmet Art. Its over….End of Empire. I am for the 100%.

    1. I agree Scott but it seems to be the same everywhere – look at the shambles of MoMA NYC or The Tate Modern. Just as clueless and bland. The institutional stagnation is on a global scale. I’m still hoping it’s just a dearth of curatorial talent and intelligence rather than some more arch ideological crisis, but I’m an optimist – or maybe terrorist!

  3. Ever since Paul Keating anointed the SSO as THE preeminent NATIONAL orchestra, having previously stated that “if you weren’t living in Sydney, you were just camping out”, I’ve had a suspicion that there was an arts funding version of ‘helicopter Ben’ hovering over Sydney.
    If you think funding is tight in NSW, try Victoria for size.
    Federal taxpayer dollars/wages have been syphoned off from Victoria for decades, be it arts, ABC, tourism, military etc, all going North as a result, it seems, of a trend to politically and administerially run Australia from Kirribilli.
    Proof…..what happened to the discussion around a priministerial residence in Melbourne when it was speculated that Peter Costello may take over from Howard.

  4. It’s 6 weeks later. I visited AGNSW yesterday and had a great time. I am not a visual artist and have to stake one way or another in what is happening there. It seems to me a transformation. The Australian exhibition has become to an extent an exhibition of Sydney painters, coherent, interesting to US, very accomplished, it seems to me. The Asian gallery is opened up, less cluttered, stunning in fact. And so on. New broom.

    As to $450m for a new building. That is a hell of a lot of money. Wouldn’t it be great if that sort of money were available for purchases from our artists.

  5. I don’t understand these ridiculous photos of corridors to prove a point. It strikes me that having a beautiful and sensitive extension of a Gallery is essential for an international city like Sydney regardless of your thoughts of it’s Director or staff. I understand that Edmund was great but that was over a few years ago and it really is time to move on. the comments on the Society are ridiculous. this is an outdated organisation with no real purpose.

    No mention of Recent show,The Greats. I foolishly went in the last few weeks and couldn’t move..guess stories like that don’t suit your agenda.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. Those photos were taken mid-week at the AGNSW to show how few people were there at that time and the story was published on June 17, 2015. The writer of that piece, Patricia Anderson, also reviewed The Greats at AGNSW on October 26, 2015, just after the show opened, for Daily Review.

      She wrote in her first paragraph:

      “A fizzing time-capsule has landed on our shores courtesy of our northern hemisphere cousins, the Scots. Director Michael Brand’s negotiations with the directors of the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have presented the Art Gallery of NSW with the most dazzling exhibition since the Hidden Treasures from National Museum, Kabul which visited in 2014”.

      Read the review at

      Ray Gill (Editor)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *