Notions of what art museums should look and feel like have changed dramatically in the century and a half since the Art Gallery of New South Wales first opened. Nowhere is that more clear than in the museum’s new Sydney Modern Project, which opened this month.
While the original structure of Australia’s most prominent art museum is a Neoclassical palace perched on rising ground above Sydney Harbour, the $217 million Modern Project, designed by the acclaimed Japanese architecture firm SANAA, features a public garden and a new building that angles down the slope in discrete sections, giving the impression it’s being absorbed by the surrounding grassland. The Corinthian columns and arched ceilings of old are nowhere to be found in this new structure, replaced instead by wall-size windows, inter-woven spaces, and outdoor areas that serve as extensions of the galleries.
“Our goal has been to create seamless connections among art, architecture, and landscape,” says museum director Dr. Michael Brand. “With a more porous connection between indoors and outdoors, the new building delivers new types of spaces for new thinking and new forms of art.” As opposed to the old-school approach of seeking to provoke feelings of quasi-religious awe, the updated design, which almost doubles the pre-existing gallery’s space, is about providing a sense of community. “It’s a place,” Brand notes, “where everyone is welcome.”
This spirit is also apparent in the opening exhibition, which comprises works by 900 artists from around the world. The experience starts close to home: The first pieces visitors encounter are 160 works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the new Yiribana Gallery. Other highlights include a gallery built into a decommissioned World War II naval fuel tank—“It’s a rare experience for a museum director to open an art space as distinctive and historically redolent as The Tank,” Brand says—and a media gallery with an exhibition, Outlaw, that explores the depiction of antiheroes in global art. Taken together, the opening is a once-in-a-generation event that will bring far more art to far more people.
“It will be a place of generosity and inclusion, where contemporary art is shown with historical art,” Brand says. “This is truly the world seen from Sydney.”