As it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2021, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is undertaking a major expansion – the Sydney Modern Project – which will transform one of Australia’s flagship art museums.
With construction underway and scheduled for completion in late 2022, the $344 million (AUD) transformation includes the development of a new standalone building designed by the Japanese Pritzker Prize-winning architects SANAA. It will be connected to the existing Gallery building via an outdoor public art garden accessible 24/7, creating a civic campus on its magnificent site overlooking Sydney Harbour. The Sydney Modern Project will also give prominence to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, as well as revitalising the Gallery’s much-loved existing building with its signature collection of Australian art.
AGNSW is located in the heart of Sydney’s eastern cultural precinct, adjacent to the Royal Botanic Garden and overlooking Sydney Harbour. It is home to an unrivalled collection of Australian art from the early 19th-century to the present. The Gallery has been at the forefront of collecting, displaying and interpreting historic and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and in engaging directly with artists and their communities. In addition, the Gallery holds significant collections of European and Asian art and presents major national and international exhibitions.
A leading centre for Asian art and culture, the Gallery has an outstanding collection from East Asia as well as South and Southeast Asia. The first works to enter the Gallery collection in 1879 were a large group of ceramics and bronzes that had featured at the Sydney International Exhibition that year – a gift from the Government of Japan.
From the time of its founding in 1871, the Gallery has collected and worked with the artists of its time from both Australia and abroad, a commitment that will remain central to the transformed art museum.
The new building designed by SANAA will sit in contrast to the Gallery’s 19th-century neo-classical building, with a public art garden connecting the two. Light, transparent and open to its surroundings, SANAA’s building responds to the site’s topography with a series of pavilions that cascade down towards Woolloomooloo Bay with spectacular views over Sydney Harbour. The new building will almost double AGNSW’s total exhibition space, from 9,000 to 16,000 sqm (97,000 to 172,000 sq. ft) and will feature galleries specifically designed to accommodate art of the 21st century.
The Gallery is setting a new benchmark for cultural institutions as the first public art museum in Australia to achieve the highest environmental standard for design. The Green Building Council of Australia has awarded the Sydney Modern Project a 6-star Green Star design rating. This ‘world leadership’ rating is testament to the Gallery’s commitment to sustainability and SANAA’s innovative design. Sustainability initiatives include water efficiency and rainwater harvesting, solar panels and green roofs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art will be presented with unprecedented ambition, delivering commissions emerging from longstanding relationships with artists and communities. In the SANAA-designed building, works by Indigenous artists will be the first to be encountered by visitors as they enter, installed in a dedicated 960 sqm (10,333 sq ft gallery). Works from the Gallery’s internationally significant permanent collection will also be displayed as part of the curatorial narrative across the entire campus, celebrating Australia’s enduring cultural heritage and its myriad contemporary expressions.
The new building will incorporate a vast, dramatic, columned underground art space repurposed from a decommissioned WWII naval oil tank that will display large-scale contemporary works. The 2,200 sqm (23,700 sq. ft) gallery with 7-metre-high (23 ft) ceilings will be used for specially commissioned installations and site-specific performances, providing public access to this unique space for the first time.
Other spaces in the new building will include:
- A 1,300 sqm (13,993 sq. ft) major exhibition gallery with 5.5-metre-high (18 ft) ceilings to host national and international shows
- A 1,160 sqm (12,486 sq. ft) column-free contemporary gallery with 5.5-metre-high (18 ft) ceilings and a glazed facade looking out to Woolloomooloo Bay
- Purpose-built learning and participation studios for younger audiences, school programmes and a variety of public programmes, including a dedicated studio for creating multimedia works
- Flexible spaces to support public programmes, including performance and lectures
- Smaller galleries, including a project gallery and a suite of spaces for multimedia works
- Integrated indoor and outdoor spaces, including accessible landscaped rooftop art terraces and courtyards, as well as the art garden and civic plaza.
The Sydney Modern Project is the largest government and philanthropic partnership of its kind to be achieved to date in the arts in Australia. Together with the NSW Government’s $244 million (AUD) in funding, the Gallery has attracted unprecedented support, exceeding its fundraising target of $100 million (AUD) to support construction of the new building.
Dr Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said, “SANAA’s sublime design allows us to bring together art, architecture and landscape in spectacular new ways to create a unique art museum experience for everyone to enjoy in our vibrant global city.”