Inside Michael Brand’s campaign to transform the Art Gallery of NSW
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
THE AGNSW HAS SUBSTANTIALLY LESS CAPACITY TO MOUNT CROWD-PULLING BLOCKBUSTERS
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