In­side Michael Brand’s cam­paign to trans­form the Art Gallery of NSW

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

In­ter­state ri­valry is alive and well among the na­tion’s state art gal­leries. The best and busiest is in Mel­bourne, where the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria is qui­etly mov­ing ahead with plans for a third site for con­tem­po­rary art. Queens­land Art Gallery’s con­tem­po­rary venue, the Gallery of Mod­ern Art, opened on the banks of the Bris­bane River a decade ago. Tas­ma­nia has its mod­ern-art mag­net, too, the Mu­seum of Old and New Art built by mil­lion­aire gam­bler David Walsh.

It can make Syd­ney look a poor re­la­tion. The Art Gallery of NSW oc­cu­pies one of the best sites in the city: the Do­main park­lands on one side, har­bour views on the other. But ev­ery space of the gallery is used, cramp­ing its style for block­buster shows and even re­strict­ing the num­ber of school vis­its. Syd­ney, the ar­gu­ment goes, should have a des­ti­na­tion art mu­seum, a vis­ual arts com­ple­ment to the Opera House.

Last year the gallery re­vealed plans for a bold new ex­ten­sion, an ad­join­ing build­ing to be called Syd­ney Mod­ern: an ar­chi­tec­tural land­mark de­signed by one of the world’s hottest firms, SANAA. The build­ing would dou­ble the gallery’s size, with spa­ces for in­dige­nous art, large-scale ex­hi­bi­tions, a restau­rant and func­tion cen­tre. The pro­jected cost is $450 mil­lion.

If all goes to plan, Syd­ney Mod­ern will open in 2021 for the AGNSW’s 150th an­niver­sary. But that seems a long way off, as the gallery still does not have the cash or ap­proval to pro­ceed.

It aims to raise $100m in do­na­tions — for the right price, it will put a bene­fac­tor’s name over the front door — but so far has not iden­ti­fied a sin­gle donor in sup­port of the pro­ject.

The NSW govern­ment — with $600m to spend on cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture — has given $15m for de­vel­op­ment work, but noth­ing more in the re­cent state bud­get. Fund­ing for SANAA’s ini­tial en­gage­ment ended last month, with no sign of Syd­ney Mod­ern mov­ing into con­struc­tion phase any­time soon.

Syd­ney Mod­ern is not short of chal­lenges. Paul Keat­ing, whose of­fice is across the way at Potts Point, doesn’t like it at all: he sees the gallery’s ex­pan­sion as a land grab, a me­gaplex “mas­querad­ing as an art gallery”. In re­cent weeks Re­view has spo­ken to many peo­ple con­nected with the AGNSW, in­clud­ing prom­i­nent play­ers in the na­tional art scene. Some are unim­pressed by the lead­er­ship of its di­rec­tor, Michael Brand. Pri­vately, they ques­tion Brand’s abil­ity to win over im­por­tant stake­hold­ers, whose sup­port is es­sen­tial if Syd­ney Mod­ern is to get off the ground. On a Sun­day af­ter­noon Re­view de­cides to tour the gallery — not the fa­mil­iar sand­stone ed­i­fice de­signed by Wal­ter Lib­erty Ver­non, but the imag­ined Syd­ney Mod­ern next door.

We’re stand­ing at the edge of the Do­main and Royal Botanic Gar­den, look­ing to­wards the har­bour. The land marked out for Syd­ney Mod­ern is enor­mous — more than three foot­ball fields — but scrappy, mostly con­crete un­der a grass cover. The AGNSW wants us to imag­ine, on this spot, a se­ries of ter­races that fan across and step down the site to­wards Wool­loomooloo. SANAA’s plans de­scribe a struc­ture that’s trim and light: a vis­ual coun­ter­point to the neo­clas­si­cal colonnade next door.

There’s an open-air plaza cov­ered with a canopy, and a ramp that leads into the gallery. The ter­races are built into the hill­side, with gal­leries for in­dige­nous art, tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions and a sculp­ture court. At the low­est level, dis­used World War II oil tanks will be turned into a post-in­dus­trial art space. Pub­lic ac­cess will be main­tained through the site, and pedes­tri­ans com­ing up from Wool­loomooloo will walk through a gar­den with na­tive trees and grasses.

“It’s an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion to a very com­plex site,” says Brand, speak­ing to Re­view the next day. “Peo­ple look at it and think, ‘It’s grass, it’s park­land.’ It’s roads, oil tanks, con­crete. We are adding struc­ture to that, and also th­ese beau­ti­ful gar­dens … This has to be, in my view, a bet­ter pub­lic amenity than the grass on the roof of an oil tank.”

About 180,000 visi­tors to the gallery have seen the plans and Brand says “I prob­a­bly re­ceived five neg­a­tive com­ments”. Con­cerns about pub­lic land are le­git­i­mate, he adds, and since SANAA’s ini­tial plans were re­vealed, the foot­print has been re­duced from 26,000sq m to about 22,000sq m.

The ex­pan­sion plans pre-date Brand’s ar­rival at the AGNSW in mid-2012. As early as 2007, un­der former di­rec­tor Ed­mund Capon, the gallery was dis­cussing ways to break out of its in­creas­ingly cramped quar­ters. In 2008, it com­mis­sioned a strate­gic plan from ar­chi­tects JPW, de­sign­ers of the last ma­jor ex­ten­sion, the Asian wing that opened in 2003.

By the time Capon re­tired in 2011, pre­lim­i­nary plan­ning had been done, and dis­cus­sions had with the O’Far­rell govern­ment. Sev­eral sites were con­sid­ered, in­clud­ing Baranga­roo and the south­ern side of the gallery, but Brand says the cho­sen site to the north was the pre­ferred op­tion.

Can­berra-born Brand ar­rived at the gallery af­ter more than 11 years in North Amer­ica. His first se­nior role was as cu­ra­tor of Asian art at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, fol­lowed by four years as as­sis­tant di­rec­tor at the Queens­land Art Gallery. In the US, he went to the Vir­ginia Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Rich­mond, and spent five years as di­rec­tor of the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, where he earned re­spect for han­dling the re­turn of dis­puted an­tiq­ui­ties to Italy and Greece.

Most re­cently, he was con­sult­ing di­rec­tor of the Aga Khan Mu­seum in Toronto, over­see­ing con­struc­tion of its new build­ing by Fu­mi­hiko Maki. A spe­cial­ist of Asian and Is­lamic art, Brand is an ar­chi­tec­ture en­thu­si­ast, and dresses a bit like an ar­chi­tect, too, in trim suits and black-rimmed glasses.

In 2013 the gallery opened an in­vi­ta­tion-only com­pe­ti­tion for Syd­ney Mod­ern and se­lected SANAA. The Ja­panese firm is named for its two prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tects, Kazuyo Se­jima and Ryue Nishizawa, who in 2010 were awarded ar­chi­tec­ture’s high­est hon­our, the Pritzker Prize. The duo has some form in Syd­ney: among their first projects was a de­sign for the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in 1997, dropped when fund­ing to build it couldn’t be found.

Brand says Syd­ney Mod­ern will be not just an ex­pan­sion of the AGNSW but a trans­for­ma­tion. It needs room to grow, and he de­scribes Syd­ney Mod­ern as a 21st-cen­tury art mu­seum ca­pa­ble of host­ing ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions and telling the story of in­dige­nous art.

Com­pared with the state gal­leries in Mel­bourne and Bris­bane, the AGNSW has sub­stan­tially less ca­pac­ity to mount crowd-pulling block­busters. Its most pop­u­lar show in re­cent years — the 2011 Pi­casso ex­hi­bi­tion that drew more than 339,000 peo­ple — meant bump­ing the per­ma­nent Aus­tralian col­lec­tion from the ground floor. The down­stairs gallery — where the Archibald Prize opened last night — is about 950sq m, com­pared with the NGV’s 1700sq m for tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions. Th­ese fac­tors have a bear­ing on visi­tor num­bers: the AGNSW had just over a mil­lion visi­tors last


year; the much big­ger NGV across its two build­ings clocked a record 2.3 mil­lion.

The AGNSW does present high-qual­ity and pop­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions in the avail­able space, such as The Greats, a show of Euro­pean mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gallery of Scot­land. But Brand says Syd­ney is miss­ing out on ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions be­cause the gallery sim­ply doesn’t have the fa­cil­i­ties. His coun­ter­part at the NGV, Tony Ellwood, has had a run of al­lur­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, such as the re­cent Andy Warhol/Ai Wei­wei show, and the cur­rent De­gas ret­ro­spec­tive. Ellwood has an­nounced for 2018 a big show from New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art — whose di­rec­tor is Brand’s old univer­sity buddy Glenn Lowry.

Brand’s ar­gu­ments for ex­pan­sion have not con­vinced ev­ery­one. His gallery has about 32,000 ob­jects in its col­lec­tion, less than half those of the NGV. If Syd­ney Mod­ern goes ahead, what will they put in it? And the AGNSW al­ready has a “com­pan­ion” gallery: the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art at Cir­cu­lar Quay. Their com­bined at­ten­dance was 1.9 mil­lion visi­tors last year: closer to the two-build­ing NGV and ex­ceed­ing QAGOMA’s 1.6 mil­lion.

Big­ger is not nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter, and Keat­ing says Brand could in­crease vis­i­ta­tion and rev­enue by run­ning the gallery “op­ti­mally”. Syd­ney Mod­ern also would in­crease the gallery’s op­er­at­ing ex­penses, $47m last year. Re­view has asked for ev­i­dence of Syd­ney Mod­ern’s po­ten­tial eco­nomic im­pact, but the AGNSW has not pro­vided fig­ures.

One well-placed ob­server says: “There has been no clear case as to why peo­ple should spend $450m chew­ing up a big chunk of pub­lic park, and not — by the look of things — get­ting much ad­di­tional gallery space, and get­ting a mas­sive in­crease in op­er­at­ing costs, which falls back to govern­ment to sup­port.”

In con­ver­sa­tion, Brand is en­gag­ing, po­lite and softly spo­ken, if not quite the im­pre­sario like some other arts fig­ures around town. But in the com­pet­i­tive cul­tural arena, some have made frank as­sess­ments of Brand’s managerial style and his re­la­tion­ships with stake­hold­ers. His pre­de­ces­sor Capon and El­iz­a­beth Ann Mac­gre­gor at the MCA have both en­joyed vis­i­bly warm re­la­tions with pre­miers. The last time Mike Baird opened an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery was the Archibald Prize two years ago, al­though Brand and AGNSW Trust pres­i­dent David Gon­ski re­cently gave the Premier and his wife a pri­vate tour of The Greats.

Brand has also caused neg­a­tiv­ity around the gallery at a time when it is seek­ing a huge com­mit­ment of pub­lic sup­port. Sev­eral peo­ple in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle say he can be rude and over­bear­ing. His at­tempts to wrest con­trol of the in­de­pen­dent Art Gallery So­ci­ety — with its 27,000 card­hold­ers and $800,000 sur­plus — has an­gered mem­bers. He has man­aged to put off­side the city’s two most im­por­tant art crit­ics, Re­view’s Christo­pher Allen and The Syd­ney

Morn­ing Her­ald’s John McDon­ald, who say Brand has banned them from con­duct­ing overseas tours for the so­ci­ety.

Brand’s five-year con­tract is due for re­newal next June and some are ask­ing whether he should stay. (This news­pa­per re­vealed this week that his deputy, Suhanya Raf­fel, is leav- ing to take up a role in Asia.) Gon­ski’s ap­point­ment as pres­i­dent of the AGNSW Trust is seen as cru­cial to the gallery’s fu­ture and the suc­cess of Syd­ney Mod­ern. Gon­ski was not avail­able for in­ter­view, but artist and trustee Ben Quilty says the board is “ab­so­lutely” be­hind Brand as di­rec­tor. Quilty likes Brand’s con­tem­po­rary out­look, and says he is “liv­ing and breath­ing” Syd­ney Mod­ern. Asked why Syd­ney Mod­ern ap­pears to be strug­gling, Quilty says: “Peo­ple can blame per­son­al­i­ties if they don’t like some­one, but the in­sti­tu­tion is big­ger than any of the staff or trustees, or artists.”

Syd­ney Mod­ern will de­pend on sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment from pri­vate donors, the state and pos­si­bly Can­berra. The head­line fig­ure is $450m, but Brand says the gallery has bro­ken down the cost­ings in its sub­mis­sion to govern­ment. About $70m is re­quired for es­sen­tial up­grades to the ex­ist­ing build­ing, which brings Syd­ney Mod­ern back to $380m.

The gallery has re­ceived two in­stal­ments of state funds: for plan­ning and the ar­chi­tec­ture com­pe­ti­tion ($10.8m) and for the first-year en­gage­ment phase ($4m). That pe­riod ended on June 30, and the gallery to date has no more govern­ment fund­ing. “We haven’t asked them for any­thing else,” Brand says. The re­la­tion­ship with SANAA is on­go­ing and “we are just us­ing what we’ve got avail­able”.

The cap­i­tal cam­paign is be­ing led by trust vice-pres­i­dent Mark Nel­son and di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment John Richard­son. Brand says there is some ex­cit­ing news on the fundrais­ing front, but he’s not ready to go pub­lic. Pri­vately, the gallery says it has pledges of more than $50m to­wards the tar­get $100m. If that fig­ure is reached, Syd­ney Mod­ern would need govern­ment fund­ing of about $280m.

The gallery has some wealthy sup­port­ers: past and present mem­bers of the board of trustees in­clude some of the most res­o­nant board­room names in Syd­ney, from former presidents Frank Lowy, his son Steven Lowy and Guido Bel­giorno-Net­tis to Gon­ski and trustee Gre­tel Packer. It is also court­ing cashed-up Chi­nese res­i­dents. Flam­boy­ant es­tate agent Monika Tu this year hosted a lav­ish Chi­nese New Year party in the gallery’s Grand Courts, made avail­able free of charge, and is seen as a bridge be­tween the gallery and her “ul­tra-high-net­worth” clients. Another gallery sup­porter is prop­erty de­vel­oper Aqua­land — the lo­cal branch of multi-bil­lion-dol­lar Chi­nese de­vel­oper Shen­g­long Group — which spon­sored the re­cent Tang ex­hi­bi­tion.

Why the gallery has not an­nounced a foun­da­tion gift or sub­stan­tial donor has left many scratch­ing their heads. Brand says there are some “very sig­nif­i­cant pledges” from trustees and sup­port­ers, but names are be­ing kept quiet as ne­go­ti­a­tions pro­ceed. Pledged do­na­tions are often con­tin­gent on govern­ment fund­ing, while the govern­ment wants to see ev­i­dence of pri­vate sup­port be­fore it com­mits pub­lic money.

There cer­tainly are funds avail­able for se­lect projects. The Baird govern­ment has promised $600m for its Arts and Cul­tural In­fra­struc­ture Fund, with cash from the pri­vati­sa­tion of elec­tric­ity as­sets. Ev­ery­body wants some: one es­ti­mate puts the com­bined value of cul­tural bids across the state at more than $3bn. More than half the pool has been al­lo­cated for up­grades at the Syd­ney Opera House ($202m) and the re­de­vel­op­ment of Walsh Bay Pier 2/3 ($139m).

Baird al­ready has an­nounced a new Pow­er­house Mu­seum at Par­ra­matta, mov­ing it from in­ner-city Ul­timo to the western sub­urbs. One es­ti­mate puts the cost at $450m-$500m, some of which may be re­cov­ered from sell­ing the Ul­timo site. (The move, vig­or­ously op­posed by Pow­er­house sup­port­ers in the east, is to be the sub­ject of a Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil in­quiry.) Baird’s deputy, Arts Min­is­ter Troy Grant, has de­clared him­self a fan of Car­riage­works’ Lisa Hav­i­lah, whose mul­tiarts venue has made a $50m bid for ex­pan­sion.

It is not known whether the cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture fund will con­trib­ute to the new Pow­er­house. If it does, there would not be much change from $600m, and other projects would re­quire ad­di­tional state in­vest­ment.

Govern­ment agency In­fra­struc­ture NSW has com­mis­sioned New York-based AEA Con­sult­ing to re­port on the state’s cul­tural needs, with lo­cal in­put from highly re­garded arts ad­min­is­tra­tor Michael Lynch. Lynch was part of the com­pe­ti­tion jury that se­lected SANAA for Syd­ney Mod­ern. “I think it would be a great ad­di­tion to the arts land­scape of Syd­ney, but the de­ci­sions on that are en­tirely with the state govern­ment,” is all he’s pre­pared to say.

A spokesman for Baird says Syd­ney Mod­ern will be con­sid­ered as part of the cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture strat­egy, which will go to cab­i­net later this year. The gallery is ex­pected to lodge a de­vel­op­ment ap­pli­ca­tion in com­ing months.

Plans for Syd­ney Mod­ern are now en­ter­ing a crit­i­cal phase. To suc­ceed, the AGNSW needs to over­come op­po­si­tion to build­ing on pub­lic land, and raise a bud­get ap­proach­ing half a bil­lion dol­lars. Un­der­stand­ably, Brand is keen not to have the fund­ing bid play out in pub­lic. But scep­tics say the gallery must make a more com­pelling case for such a sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment, based on cul­tural need, pub­lic ben­e­fit and fi­nan­cial sense.

Brand, whose suc­cess at the gallery will be de­ter­mined by the fate of Syd­ney Mod­ern, says he would be “de­lighted to see it through”. If that is to hap­pen in five years, he will need to re­store good­will around the in­sti­tu­tion and max­imise sup­port for the pro­ject. As one lead­ing phi­lan­thropist points out, “When you back an in­sti­tu­tion, you are back­ing the lead­er­ship of the in­sti­tu­tion.”

Brand says: “You ex­pect in a big city like Syd­ney that peo­ple will have opin­ions. We would love to have 100 per cent of the peo­ple think that ev­ery­thing’s per­fect: that’s un­likely. But we feel very strongly that we’ve got a huge groundswell of pub­lic sup­port be­hind us.”

Art Gallery of NSW di­rec­tor Michael Brand

An artist’s im­pres­sion of the SANAA plans for Syd­ney Mod­ern, left; Paul Keat­ing, above, is a fierce critic of the pro­ject

Far left, ar­chi­tects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Se­jima, artist Ben Quilty and SANAA part­ner Yu­miko Ya­mada; left, Brand with Car­riage­works artis­tic di­rec­tor Lisa Hav­i­lah and MCA di­rec­tor El­iz­a­beth Ann Mac­gre­gor

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