Sydney art museum lags behind rivals

Mr Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Mr Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SYDNEY • The honey-coloured neoclassical facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney's premier art museum, projects an orderly calm amid the surrounding bucolic parkland. But for all its outward serenity, a general anxiety pervades the institution.

Four years after an ambitious expansion was proposed - an attempt to give Sydney an art museum to match its status as the most affluent and populous city in Australia - it still has not gotten off the ground.

Years after rival art museums in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra completed their own expansions and reaped obvious benefits (including higher attendances), the acrimony surrounding the Sydney Modern Project, as the expansion has been called, reflects Sydney's deep ambivalence towards culture.

This is a city in love with the idea that it punches above its weight. But it remains better known for light shows, sports spectaculars and fireworks than for great art.

The proponents of Sydney Modern hope to change this. But for years, the museum has been thwarted by budget shortfalls, competing visions and acrimonious infighting.

The dispute over the expansion has pitted the gallery's besieged director, Mr Michael Brand, against a former prime minister and a furious old guard determined to keep their beloved institution the way it was. The uncertainty is expected to be resolved next Tuesday, when the latest budget for the state of New South Wales is delivered.

In its current form, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has a faint air of apology about it. Inscribed on its sandstone facade are the names of great artists in the European tradition: Praxiteles, Giotto, Raphael, Michaelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens and Gainsborough. But apart from an oil sketch by Rubens and a portrait by Gainsborough, the gallery owns paintings by none of those artists.

The plans for Sydney Modern would double the museum's footprint. It has been envisaged by the Japanese firm Sanaa as a series of low-rise pavilions extending over an adjacent freeway and down the hill to a dramatic cavity housing World War II-era oil tanks.

Aware that the gallery will never become a great depository of works by European old masters, Mr Brand plans instead to give prominence to Australian art, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and to contemporary art from across the world.

But his efforts to mobilise stakeholders have been embroiled in bitter controversy. In a 2015 opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister known for his sharp tongue, slammed the project. He accused Brand of "constructing a gigantic spoof", what he described as "a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery".

The project's original US$336 million (S$464.6 million) cost has been lowered by about US$53 million to US$283 million. The gallery is hoping that about US$208 million will come from the government and the remaining from private donors.

No one in Sydney likes to be reminded that Jorn Utzon, the visionary Danish designer of the Sydney Opera House, was hounded out of his job by a hostile government minister. But subsequent attempts to build arts facilities here - from recital halls to contemporary art museums - have also faced drawn-out and vexatious opposition.

The government has been hesitant to help. Since his appointment in 2012, Mr Brand has had to work with three state premiers and three arts ministers. Admired in Australia and abroad, he is nonetheless described by some as thin-skinned.

His management style has come under fire from a number of ex-staffers and outside critics.

In a new book, Culture Heist, Judith White, a former head of the Art Gallery Society, accused Mr Brand of being in thrall to a corporate ethos inimical to art.

"When I was there, there was an openness and a willingness to let people get on and do what they do well," she said. "In recent years, there has been a desire to control everything and all the communication has been about the new building."

Her book came out within weeks of an announcement that Mr Brand's contract would be renewed for only one year instead of the anticipated five. According to the chairman of the museum's board, businessman David Gonski, the contract decision was arrived at mutually.

Mr Brand has had about five years to boil down his argument for why the gallery needs such a big expansion.

"In the end, it comes down to space. We're roughly half the size of the galleries which have already had expansions in Australia."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Sydney art museum lags behind rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe