On one of his first official tours through the new Sydney Modern, after roughly a decade developing the project as director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Michael Brand highlighted a few signature pieces: a new commission by an Aboriginal artist using found metal; an immersive sculpture, first exhibited in Seoul, that visitors create by rolling balls of clay; and a giant video from a New Zealander, imagining Oceania without people of European descent.
But at each stop Sydney’s natural surroundings beckoned. State officials following Brand — after forking over most of the museum’s $230 million in construction costs — praised the views more than the art. The new free-standing building, designed by Sanaa, Japan’s Pritzker-prize-winning architects, also seemed unsure of what to show off, with walls of glass opening up to Sydney’s big blue sky and shimmering harbor.
“The in-between spaces are as important as the gallery spaces,” said Brand, as he stood in the wide open middle of the structure.
“It’s a museum and a building that can only be in Sydney,” he added. “Both through our collection and through the architecture.”
Dozens of cities have tried to create their own marriages of art, architecture and landscape as part of a global museum building boom that began in the ’90s with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. The new Whitney, with its huge floor-to-ceiling views of the High Line and the Hudson River, and the Louvre’s new Arabic-galactic outpost in Abu Dhabi, on the edge of the Persian Gulf, are among the latest prominent additions.
But the Sydney Modern, which doubles the exhibition space of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, one of Australia’s most important art institutions, faces an especially acute cultural challenge. Museum building in a real-estate obsessed city that Mark Twain called “superbly beautiful” — in the sunny heart of a proud “sporting nation” — often requires overcoming a barrage of negativity. The Sydney Opera House was loathed before it was loved, and the Modern has traveled a rough road already.
Some critics, including a former prime minister, have been condemning the project from the very beginning, mostly for grabbing valuable green space. Others have taken to calling the completed building, which opened on Dec. 3, an ugly and expensive set of boxes stacked on a stunning hillside.
Echoing a common refrain, Judith White, an artist and former head of the Art Gallery Society, the gallery’s nonprofit membership arm, said a harbor view through glass is a step down. “It’s what corporate offices and the homes of the wealthy have,” she said.
The project’s price tag is far from exorbitant — it’s in line with average costs per square meter for cultural infrastructure in the region, according to AEA Consulting, a global strategy and planning firm. But Sydney’s elites, said Ross Gibson, a professor of Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra, have a long history of …….