Backing Sydney Modern

Artist Ben Quilty takes issue with Joe Kinsela’s piece in the previous issue of ARTIST PROFILE on the proposed Sydney Modern extension to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He says we need this important new development.

Landscape concept - 24hr pedestrian access through site © Kazuy

In 2016, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is my church. I am an artist and an addict of culture and the visual language of contemporary art. I am also resolute in my belief in the power of art to engage and shape and change my society for the better. As a Trustee of the AGNSW, I spoke publicly for the first time last year of my excitement about the Gallery’s expansion plans. I stood alongside Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, Laureates of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, who are working with the Gallery as architects on the Sydney Modern Project. The expanded museum will instantly join the ranks of the most famous cultural institutions in the world. It will be an icon in my country that symbolises our collective cultural pursuit of excellence.

But everyone’s a critic. That’s the way my skin has slowly but surely toughened. A road following a career in the arts in my country is a particularly tough one. Over the last decade there has been a steady and shocking erosion of arts education in my state. The art school at the University of Western Sydney was shut down. TAFE colleges of art barely survived the economic rationalisation of TAFEs under recent governments. Earlier this year The University of Newcastle shut its fabulous Fine Arts courses. And my art school, Sydney College of the arts has just survived the threatened merge with UNSW’s School of Art and Design. National Art School will be lucky to see 2018 after the announcement by the state government that it will fund the ongoing operation only through 2017. That will leave scant choice for students wishing to enroll in visual arts courses in NSW. At the same time we artists get zero tax concessions. I paid off every cent of my HECS and paid tax on every scholarship I won, including the Brett Whiteley Traveling Art Scholarship and the Archibald Prize.

It has puzzled and infuriated me for some years now that while we artists continue on, against the grain and against the odds, the arts media hacks at our success, undermines our achievements and ridicules our vision. Sydney Modern will be one of our greatest collective achievements. That the artists and community of the state of New South Wales are deemed valuable enough to invest in such an important piece of infrastructure is something I have only dreamt of!

A recent article in this magazine (“Sydney Modern: AGNSW at Risk”, AP 35) suggested that the new SANAA design is “an exercise in bad manners”, that the new building will “collide with, and not meet with, our existing building”. For the record, I could not find any other articles the author, Joe Kinsela, had penned regarding architecture. But his vehement revulsion was loud and clear. He complained of the new building encroaching “heedlessly” onto the Domain. Eighty per cent of the new building will cover disused oil tanks and the concrete land bridge over the existing expressway. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good arts bashing.

SANAA was founded by Kazuyo Sejima. Sejima is perhaps the world’s most famous living architect. Her quiet, understated architecture pays homage to the histories of architecture in profound and delightful ways. The new Sydney Modern building will be one of the great pieces of architecture in my city. It will provide extraordinary open space within its low-profile exhibition pavilions. And it will become a stadium for thought and for culture. In his article Kinsela celebrates the “Architect of the Day”, Walter Vernon, designer of the impressive 1897 sandstone façade of the AGNSW. But Vernon “appropriated” the design, almost exactly, from a museum in Scotland. Yes, he was the “architect of the day” – over 100 years ago. And Kazuyo Sejima is the internationally acclaimed architect of today.

This state’s astounding collection of Indigenous art will be front and centre in the Sydney Modern expansion. It has embarrassed me since I can remember that a city built on the remnants of such an ancient and complex community – the Gadigal, people – would, in its state art museum, place the biggest collection of Indigenous art on the least accessible floor. When Walter Vernon designed the original building there was zero Indigenous exhibition space. It is a shadowy hangover from our colonial past that the art of the first people of Sydney is still so poorly positioned in the city’s pre-eminent art gallery.

As it currently stands, the AGNSW is half the size of The Queensland Art Gallery. It can host only half the school students who request excursions. That this state’s art gallery is in this position is ludicrous. For me personally, it’s also just plain sad. The exquisite design that SANNA has brought to us will put the AGNSW back on the map for children, for students, for tourists and for us – artists.

I’m always confused when the Australian arts media questions money being spent on the expansion of an art museum. The sporting media rarely criticises the public money spent on sporting facilities. We spent $6.6 billion on the Sydney Olympics with $690 million on the stadium alone, in 1999 dollars! Don’t get me wrong, I love my sport, I’m half-way through the 2016 season with my local soccer club and I’m very glad for our spectacular sporting venues. But can we not offer our diverse population outstanding cultural facilities as well?
Kinsela refers to Paul Keating, claiming that Sejima has designed a building that will attract business types, who will “come chiefly to maintain their connections in the business world”. That an art gallery should be so grossly business-minded as to aim to have an impressive function space! Why not? Every leading art museum in the world should aim to host the world’s leaders, its cultural kings and queens and the arts community. When French President Francois Hollande visited Australia last year, Prime Minister Abbott held the official welcome lunch at Gandel Hall, the impressive function room at the National Gallery of Australia. Does Sydney not deserve a function space to match Gandel Hall? Is an art gallery not a suitable location to impress our international visitors with the importance we collectively place on culture? Today, fundraising is an integral part of a contemporary art museum anywhere in the world, and a function space is not only necessary, it is imperative.

Kinsela also states that “the only views any art gallery needs are of its collections and exhibitions”. For 30 years I have been entranced by the northern-most gallery spaces of the AGNSW. They are some of the most spectacular exhibition spaces in any museum anywhere in the world. I suggest you try sitting in them, Joe. Over the years I have found Drysdale, Olley, Friend, Smart and Olsen in those rooms while the windows beautifully placed around the space remind the viewer that you are sitting on the edge of one of the world’s greatest harbours. After all, Sydney Harbour is a natural masterpiece that has enthralled and inspired artists for thousands of years. You’re right, Walter Liberty Vernon, the New South Wales Government Architect of 1897, would be turning over in his grave with you Joe – the windows were a 70s addition. But it is 2016. The Louvre looks over the Seine, the TATE over the Thames, GOMA over the Brisbane River, the Guggenheim over Central Park in New York. And the Art Gallery of New South Wales will look over Sydney Harbour.

Joe Kinsela begged this magazine’s readers to go to the gallery and view the design for Sydney Modern. He suggests you should feel revulsion. I beg you to view it too and to keep in mind that if the doubters had had their way Sydney would not have an Opera House.

Yes, Sydney Modern is bold and it is architecturally contemporary. It is a beautiful and profoundly sympathetic concept. It will be a celebration of culture, a stadium for visual language and an extraordinary leap into our creative future. It will dramatically improve Sydney’s position as a player in the global creative economy, like other cities around the world as they too expand and create  21st-century cultural institutions. We all deserve an art museum that shows the rest of the world that we are more than sportswomen and men. There’s a dedicated and highly creative group of people at the Gallery working with the planet’s most celebrated architects towards a mighty vision for the future of this city. I’m backing them. And I’m backing Sydney Modern.

Right of reply: Stay tuned for Joe’s reply to Ben…

Image: Landscape concept – 24hr pedestrian access through site © Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa SANAA

Courtesy the architects and the Art Gallery of New South Wales