News & Commentary, Visual Arts Art Gallery of NSW: A shadow of its former self By Patricia Anderson | June 17, 2015 | 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] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Patricia Anderson Patricia Anderson is the former editor of the Australian Art Review and author of six books on the art world.