Sydney’s Major Art Museum, Mired in a Dispute, Falls Behind Its Rivals

2017-06-12 18:37:03

 

Sydney’s Major Art Museum, Mired in a Dispute, Falls Behind Its Rivals

SYDNEY, Australia — The honey-colored neo-Classical 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 — a sense of urgency, insecurity and of big things hanging in the balance.

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. The delay has been damaging for the institution, and for Sydney itself.

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 — and epitomizes — Sydney’s deep ambivalence toward 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.

It also lacks a tradition of private giving to state-owned cultural institutions. And so, starved of full-throated government support, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney have fallen increasingly behind their rivals in Australia and around the world.

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, 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 on June 20, 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, Donatello, 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, Dr. Brand, the museum’s director, 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 mobilize stakeholders have been embroiled in bitter controversy. In a 2015 opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister known for his sharp tongue, slammed the project. He accused Dr. Brand of “constructing a gigantic spoof,” what he described as “a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery.” (Mr. Keating declined to comment for this article.)

The project’s original $336 million cost ($450 million in Australian dollars) has been lowered by about $53 million to $283 million ($380 million in Australian dollars), and Sanaa’s design adjusted accordingly. The gallery is hoping that around $208 million will come from the government and the remaining $75 million 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.

“There’s fierce criticism in this country of anything that’s seen as even mildly esoteric,” explained Ben Quilty, one of two artists on the museum’s board. “Strangely,” he added, “the criticism often comes most loudly from within the arts.”

The government has been hesitant to help. Since his appointment in 2012, Dr. Brand has had to work with three state premiers and three arts ministers. With the current conservative government prone to jitters about populism, there is little appetite for spending on cultural institutions associated with urban elites.

Mr. Quilty pointed out that the Sydney Olympic Stadium, built for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, cost $690 million Australian dollars. “And that’s 1990s dollars, remember,” he said. “How can we not invest in cultural infrastructure in the same way in the biggest and most global city in the country?”

Trained in Asian art, languages and history at the Australian National University and later at Harvard, Dr. Brand, 59, has a steady, slightly introverted demeanor and a stellar curriculum vitae. He was born in Canberra, but part of his upbringing took place in the United States.

He came to the Art Gallery of New South Wales after a stint at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Before that, he was director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va., and then the Getty Museum in Los Angeles — the world’s richest museum.

“I think I can say I’m optimistic,” Dr. Brand said on a recent evening in his office, which overlooks a corner of the harbor at Woolloomooloo.

The chairman of the museum’s board, the businessman and philanthropist David Gonski (known here as Mr. Networks for his pervasive influence across business, government, education and culture), is also cautiously optimistic and emphasizes the long game. “I believe the generations that come after us will applaud both us and the government,” he said.

Dr. Brand has tried to run a tighter ship than his predecessor, Edmund Capon, an affable, energetic Englishman who led the museum for 33 years.

Admired in Australia and abroad, Dr. Brand is nonetheless described by some as thin-skinned. His management style has come under fire from a small but vocal number of ex-staffers and outside critics. In a new book, “Culture Heist,” Judith White, a former head of the Art Gallery Society, accused Dr. 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,” Ms. White said. “In recent years, there has been a desire to control everything and all the communication has been about the new building.”

Ms. White’s book came out within weeks of an announcement that Dr. Brand’s contract would be renewed for only one year instead of the anticipated five. According to Mr. Gonski, the contract decision was arrived at mutually. The institution, Mr. Gonski said, was “at a crossroads,” and realistically, if funding for Sydney Modern didn’t materialize now, Dr. Brand himself might prefer not to stay.

Dr. 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,” he said, adding, “We’re roughly half the size of the galleries which have already had expansions in Australia.”

The gallery has many of its most prestigious contemporary works — by Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt and Gerhard Richter, for instance — in storage or blocked off behind walls. “Our temporary exhibition galleries have a ceiling height of 3.6 meters,” Dr. Brand said. “That is very limiting, particularly with contemporary shows.”

The presentation of indigenous art — relegated to a space farthest from the entrance — also needs drastic improvement. In Sydney Modern, Dr. Brand said, indigenous art “will be very prominent.” He still hopes that Sydney Modern can be finished by 2021, in time for the gallery’s 150th anniversary.

“One reason we may not have hit the heights of American philanthropy here,” he said, “is that we haven’t always gone to potential donors with very big, ambitious dreams. When we have, it’s generally worked. So there’s reason to think that if you present a very compelling argument, you’ll get the support.”

He will soon discover just how compelling his argument for Sydney Modern has been.

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