The best type of art is both free and accessible to all. Public art galleries bring meaningful cultural and social value to cities and contribute to shaping experiences and understandings of a place's history. Art provides space for silence and reflection while also simultaneously starting conversations and debate. We, as humans, have been making art since prehistory, and will certainly continue to create far into any type of apocalyptic future which might await us.
Unfortunately, the long list of reasons to support and fund public art institutions has been rejected in recent years in favour of a neoliberal approach which places the economy first, private donors second, and the general public somewhere far, far down the line. This chronic underfunding of the arts was prominent in 2015 when Liberal federal Arts Minister George Brandis oversaw a $104.7 million cut to the arts sector. Similar policies have left Sydney lacking in the art scene, lagging behind cultural hubs like Melbourne. That is, until now.
For the first time in decades, a significant public investment has been made into Sydney arts and culture – $344 million to be exact. It has come to fruition in the shape of the Sydney Modern Project, an expansion of the Art Gallery of NSW. The brand new building is gigantic, almost doubling the exhibition space available. It is the largest government-funded cultural development in NSW since the Opera house was opened in the 1970s, and while it might be slightly inaccurate to insinuate that this expansion will single handedly save the Sydney arts scene, it remains incredibly impressive.
Designed by Japanese architectural firm SANAA, the building is the first public art museum in Australia to achieve a “6 Star Green Star” sustainability rating by the Green Building Council Australia. In stark contrast to the garden landscape and the neoclassical temple design of the old building, it is made up of clean lines, tall ceilings and open spaces filled with glass walls and natural light. Think UTS Building 2 on steroids.
The largest commissioning program in the history of the gallery was launched in order to fill the new space. In total, the gallery now displays the work of over 900 Australian and international artists. Refreshingly, 53% of artworks in the new wing are by women. There has also been an increase in mixed media and interactive art, with standouts including Lisa Reihana’s immersive video, Groundloop (2022), which is projected onto an enormous wall hanging above the entrance.
The work of Korean artist Kimsooja, Archive of Mind (2017) invites visitors to sit and mould balls of clay to add to an oval table which overlooks the city and water views. The experience of sitting next to adults and children playing with clay is meditative and incredibly wholesome. In a similar spirit, a giant buddha sculpture by Lee Mingwei is nestled within rammed-earth walls – once a day, a single stone appears in its hands and passing viewers are encouraged to take it with them as a souvenir.
Sculpture is a recurring theme throughout the Sydney Modern, epitomised by one of the most exciting artworks in the basement of the building. Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas’ piece, The End of Imagination consists of a series of dystopian, machine-like sculptures set against the moody backdrop of the Tank gallery. The Tank is by far the most surprising of the exhibition spaces: whereas the ground floors are flooded with light, The Tank is enshrouded in shadows. Visitors descend into the darkness through a spiral staircase into a renovated naval oil tank from World War II. The Tank gallery holds 125 concrete columns and installations that will change on a yearly basis.
At the moment, the new wing has formally been named the North Building and the original has become the South Building. If these names seem to lack flair, it is because they are only temporary. The gallery is in consultation in order to find Indigenous cultural names for both buildings. Indeed, Indigenous voices and stories have finally begun to be centred by the gallery. In a symbolic move which acknowledges the value and cultural wealth of Indigenous artists and art, the Yiribana Gallery – a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space – has been reallocated from the cramped basement of the old building to the entrance of the new one.
The colonial history of Australia has meant that racist systems have worked to deny the validity of Aboriginal art, culture and sovereignty. For many decades, the Australian art scene was overtly complicit in this denial. This relocation, as well as the placing of Indigenous art throughout the entire gallery rather than in one designated area, is a welcome advancement. Additionally, although it is not yet ready to be opened to the public, the largest commission of the new building is by Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathon Jones. The living artwork will act as a liaison between the old and new buildings, with 40 trees and native grasses growing on a superstructure reminiscent of the topography of pre-colonial Gadigal Land.
Artist and gallery trustee Tony Albert expands on the relevance of art to decolonisation and the rewriting of colonial narratives.
"Art has the ability to heal and to transcend culture, age and language to educate and to challenge… Our colonial history is complex; it cannot be extinguished. But if we cannot learn from our mistakes we are doomed to make them again in the future. We do not need to encourage alternative viewpoints, but implement and value Indigenous people, perspectives and knowledges. We do not need to tell the story of Indigenous people. We need to empower and open the front door to let Indigenous people tell their stories their ways.”
As part of the process of decolonisation, we must listen and act on historically silenced voices. Art is a powerful tool for imagining mechanisms of decolonisation and a just future for Indigenous peoples. These conversations can be made accessible to the general public through free galleries such as the Sydney Modern Project.
The new gallery space is open daily, 10am – 5pm and until 10pm on Wednesdays (except 14–28 December 2022). It is located next to the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Domain. Grab a friend, family member or lover and pay it a visit sometime – you won’t regret it.