Spaces for Art
Blog — 03 Oct 2023
Compared to the great civic galleries of the past, contemporary art galleries have evolved into buildings with a very different set of priorities. Whereas The National Gallery, The Louvre, The Prado and The Uffizi comprise of suites of rooms for the display of paintings and sculpture, this is no longer the sole function of a public gallery. This shift is both architectural and curatorial, whilst the greats adopt the architectural iconography of the urban palazzo, newly commissioned galleries seem to either adopt a bland democratic modernist approach or a deliberately iconographic sculptural solution.
SANAA have just completed Sydney Modern which sits adjacent to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The latter is a porticoed neo-classical building with a suite of gallery spaces that were grafted onto it in the 1970’s by Andrew Andersons. It works well, showing the historical collection in the original rooms and the 20th and 21st century works in the open concrete structure of the later extension. The building maximises gallery space which in turn allows the visitor to focus on a particular era or to get an historical overview of the art of the state of New South Wales.
In contrast Sydney Modern is open and transparent, a building that engages with its surroundings and frames views of the city beyond. It is, rather like Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, a lightweight pavilion above a set of subterranean spaces. It is beautifully detailed and well constructed using uncharacteristically heavy materials for SANAA, rammed earth and limestone for example. When I visited some of the spaces were closed for re-hanging, but even so it appears to be another example of the current trend to let the architecture take centre stage, the gallery has become an experience and an event space. In London we have seen this at the Tate Modern extension and the Design Museum, in both buildings the architect seems more concerned with the grandiosity of the of circulation spaces than meaningful rooms to view art.
The project was publicly funded to the tune of AUS $355m, a hefty budget, and one can’t help feeling that if privately paid for it would have resulted in a very different building. It is clear that institutions want voluminous democratic non-hierarchical space in an effort to break down perceived barriers and to appeal to new audiences. The first thing you see at Sydney Modern is the shop, and the cafe is prominent in the triple height void at the heart of the building. These sit in a transitory airport-style space, the escalators and lifts only add to the sense of anonymity. Once again client and competition brief were clearly more concerned with a statement piece of “Starchitecture” than spaces for the display of art (it even has some curved walls).
The trend can of course be traced back to the success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim at Bilbao, and it has been attempted across the globe with mixed results. It seems that commissioning cities want to create a destination cultural space and Gehry is more often than not the go-to architect. Paris has the Fondation Louis Vuitton and Arles has a particularly weak landmark tower building by him.
I was recently in Sydney for the 7th edition of Sydney Contemporary, a five day art fair that we design at the magnificent Carriageworks venue. It attracted around 25,000 visitors, and sales in excess of AUS $22m. Ninety-six galleries show around 500 artists, many relatively unknown, it is a cross section of the Australasian art world, indigenous art was particularly strong this year. Art fairs are not taken that seriously by the curatorial world of contemporary museums, but on this showing there is no better way to introduce art to new audiences in a relaxed and open minded way. John MacDonald is The Sydney Morning Herald art critic, and his review of the fair deals with these issues nicely and is worth reading here, "It’s a museum show disguised as a commercial proposition."