The long-awaited Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)’s Sydney Modern Project, the largest cultural development to hit the Australian city since the 1973 inauguration of its namesake opera house, now has an official opening date of December 3.
The massive—and at times controversial—$243 million project not only entails a refresh of the existing historic home of the AGNSW—this includes a total reinstallation of its 36,000-object collection to better reflect its breadth and diversity—but also a new museum building designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning SANAA. The building is the first in Australia for Tokyo-based SANAA, which won the project in 2015 over the likes David Chipperfield, Renzo Piano, and Herzog & de Meuron in an international design competition. The design was first revealed in 2020.
The Sydney Modern Project is envisioned as less a typical museum expansion effort and more of a reimagining of the 150-year-old museum located adjacent to Royal Botanic Garden Sydney within The Domain, an 88-acre swath of parkland located on the eastern edge of the city’s central business district. Come December, this reimagining will yield a new civic campus—one located on Gadigal land—for Sydney and New South Wales.
“Our new art museum campus brings together art, architecture, and landscape in spectacular new ways, providing visitors with art and cultural experiences only possible here,” said AGNSW Director Dr. Michael Brand in a statement. “This is truly the world seen from Sydney.”
Comprised of a series of low-slung, limestone-clad rectangular pavilions of various sizes that cascade down a gently sloping site toward Sydney Harbor, SANAA’s building is linked to AGNSW’s neoclassical main museum building via a public art garden spanning across the M1 expressway. In addition to the freeway-capping art park (the land bridge itself was created in the 1990s), another singular feature of the Sydney Modern Project is a subterranean 23,680-square-foot gallery space housed within a decommissioned World War II naval oil tank. Located at the lowest part of the site, the cavernous underground space will be used to stage special performances and exhibitions.
The ambitious scope of the Sydney Modern Project was presented at a press luncheon held yesterday in Manhattan, and attended by AN. In addition to Brand, present at the briefing from the AGNSW were, among others, Director of Public Engagement Miranda Carroll and Wesley Shaw (Yuin/Dharawalk/Ngarigo), Senior Programs Producer, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Joining remotely via pre-taped video to speak about the project were Maud Page, the AGNSW’s Deputy Director and Director of Collections, and SANAA founding principals Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.
In total, the Sydney Modern Project expands AGNSW’s available exhibition space from just under 97,000 square feet to just over 172,000 square feet. The total footprint of the museum is nearly doubled.
Per a press announcement, galleries housed within SANAA’s airy new museum building will be “specifically designed to accommodate art of the 21 century;” circulation spaces indoors and out will also be large enough to host major installations. In addition to the oil tank gallery, new galleries and public spaces at the new building include an approximately 10,000-square-foot exhibition space dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, a major exhibition gallery, a large column-free gallery, and a range of smaller galleries along with myriad multipurpose spaces for public programming, performances, and lectures. The new museum complex is also to include a learning studio for children, media lab, cafe, shop, and a series of interlinked rooftop terraces, which together span nearly 36,000 square feet.
Ahead of its opening later this year, the Sydney Modern Project, has been awarded a 6-star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia. Sustainable design elements include a rainwater harvesting system, a solar array installed over the new entrance pavilion, and more.
Joining SANAA on the larger design team is local architecture studio is Australian firm Architectus in the role of executive architect for the new building. Tonkin Zulaikha Greer is leading the revamp of the existing 1897 museum building. Heading the design of the campus landscape and civic spaces is Kathryn Gustafson of Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nicol with multidisciplinary design studio McGregor Coxall. Richard Crookes Constructions is the project contractor.
As part of the Sydney Modern Project, nine artists hailing from Australia, New Zealand, and beyond have also been commissioned for major, site-specific installations and architectural interventions. Located indoors and outdoors at both the refurbished museum building and its contemporary new neighbor, the artistic commissions prominently feature Indigenous Australian artists. “Our collection will be accentuated by bold and compelling new art commissions that contribute to important global conversations of our time from our place here in the Asia Pacific,” explained Page.
Commissioned artists include: Waradgerie artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey (Australia), Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens (Australia), Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones (Australia), Māori artist Lisa Reihana (Aotearoa New Zealand), Richard Lewer (Australia), Simryn Gill (Australia/Malaysia), Lee Mingwei (France/U.S.), Francis Upritchard (U.K./Italy/Aotearoa New Zealand), and finally Japan’s Yayoi Kusama, who has been commissioned to create a massive floral sculpture inspired by the native flora of southeastern Australia. Kusama’s mega-flower will be installed on the terrace of the new building overlooking Sydney Harbor and, as noted by AGNSW, will be “visible over three floors, inside and out.”
These new commissions join the museum’s sizable current collection of Australian art (“the broadest and finest to be found anywhere” per the museum), including 2,000 historic and contemporary works of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art acquired over the past 74 years along with extensive European and Asian collections.