A new Museum of Contemporary Art has been a long time coming. This weekend the public can take a first look and see if the wait has been worthwhile. My own verdict, after an intensive preview, is that it is a qualified success.
Some would argue we have been waiting ever since John Wardell Power’s £2 million bequest of 1961 laid the foundations for a department of art history at Sydney University and a collection of contemporary art. The university sat on the Power Bequest for years and made some questionable investment decisions. Purchasing only began in earnest when Elwyn Lynn became curator in 1968, a post he would hold until 1983. It’s generally acknowledged that Lynn bought some excellent works and a lot of secondary ones, as he tried to make the budget stretch as far as possible.
The collection did not have a proper home until 1991, which saw the conversion of the old Maritime Services Building, under the directorship of Bernice Murphy and Leon Paroissien. The first exhibitions were unforgettable – for all the wrong reasons. Shows such as Caravans of the Future and TV Times were embarrassing attempts to capture a popular audience. The building itself was never up to the mark by international standards.
In the years since 1999, when Liz Ann Macgregor became director, the MCA has had its share of ups and downs, although mostly the latter. The big problem has been cash. After initially boasting that it would be self-sufficient, the museum has had to find a huge amount of moolah, finally relying on the State government for a bail-out. It has also struggled to tap private sponsors and philanthropists, at least until the indefatigable Simon Mordaunt came along.
But it would be naive to ascribe all the MCA’s difficulties to lack of funds. Many wounds have been self-inflicted through poor management and budgeting. Most problematic of all has been the exhibition program, which has included a preponderance of shows based on no better criteria than the passing enthusiasms of the international art world. The MCA would argue that until the year 2000 it was entry fees that were deterring audiences, but this was merely by way of reinforcement. To be bored by a free show is disappointing, but to be charged for the privilege of being bored is a rip-off. Once bitten, viewers would never return, and all museums live or die on the basis of repeat visitation.
While the MCA might resent these observations there were few exhibitions during 2000-2010 that connected with a local audience. No matter how much the Terror in Tartan would huff and puff about how the wonders of contemporary art, the general public showed a distressing tendency to make up their own minds.
The other extreme was the occasional foray into populism, such as the Annie Leibovitz exhibition of 2010. This show drew crowds, but it was a very ordinary affair that seemed to be marking time while the museum sorted out its finances and its building plans. At least it suggested that pragmatism had begun to chip away at contemporary art fundamentalism.
Fast-forward to the present. Amid a blaze of publicity, partly orchestrated by international PR firms, the MCA is repositioning itself as the major art venue it always wanted to be. The logo now reads: “MCA Australia”, a wry answer to the way Melbourne likes to see all its galleries as national institutions. Even obscure spaces such the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, have the grandest titles.
I won’t dwell on the building itself, except to say that Sam Marshall’s design seems to follow a trend in Australian museum architecture, of fulfilling the brief while not doing anything exceptional. The best bit is probably the new entrance from Circular Quay, with its wide steps and the big white wall jazzed up with a geometric abstract mural by Helen Eager. If this piece strikes a chord, you might like to sample a survey of Eager’s work currently being held at Utopia Fine Art.
Coming from the city one has to walk past the museum to find the new entrance, but I presume there were heritage issues that prevented tampering with the façade of the original building. The exhibition galleries still lack height, and the overall space devoted to exhibitions is not as generous as one might wish. The press release boasts that the redevelopment boosts the size of the MCA by 50 percent, but exhibition space by only 26 percent.
A huge hunk of the new building is given over to children’s education – a common tactic in these days when museums have to show public funding bodies how much they care about the kiddies. But for a gallery devoted exclusively to contemporary art, this is overdone. One imagines these spaces used to propagandize on behalf of the contemporary rather than to practice ‘education’ in any disinterested sense. The children even get the million dollar views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.
The rooftop café and sculpture terrace is a brilliant spot that will look better when populated. The only sculpture so far is Fountain, a commissioned work by Hany Armanious. It is a large marble facsimile of the inner ear, carved by specialist craftsmen, alongside a bronze cast of a cheap plastic table. If this sounds daffy I’m not capable of dispelling that impression. Most sculptors would probably say this piece lacks form, definition, and any sense of how to make use of an – admittedly daunting – space. In a brochure, curator, Anna Davis makes a brave attempt at explanation, but after having sampled Armanious’s woeful contribution to the Australian Pavilion in last year’s Venice Biennale, I’m impervious to the idea that appreciating his sculptures “takes time”. On the contrary: the longer one looks, the more one becomes aware of the absence of character or dynamism.
The first three exhibitions are a mixed bag. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which occupies the entire ground-floor gallery, converted into a makeshift cinema, is a tour-de-force that has titillated audiences around the world. It owes its popularity, however, to a mixture of nostalgia for the fragments of old films it employs, and our sense of amazement at the time it must have taken for anyone to piece it together. For 24 hours, the time that appears in many hundreds of on-screen clocks is exactly the same as the time on one’s watch or phone.
The Clock is a crowd-pleaser; the make-or-break exhibitions are the shows on levels 1, 2 and 3. The first two levels are devoted to Volume One: MCA Collection, a showcase from the permanent collection, selected by curator, Glenn Barkley. In the upstairs galleries one finds Marking Time, an ambitious exhibition on a largely ungraspable theme, put together by Rachel Kent.
No-one, yours truly included, will like everything in Volume One. The field is too diverse, the quality of work too haphazard, and some pieces so dopey they virtually dare the viewer to find a redeeming feature. However, in weighing the pros and cons, most pieces testify to Barkley’s conscientiousness rather than his willingness to cover all the bases. He has used the space intelligently, integrating Aboriginal art seamlessly within the hang. Being confident enough to follow his own taste he has included a number of quirky, idiosyncratic items that one would not have expected to find at the MCA’s grand opening. There’ll be a few artists saying: “Hey, I’m contemporary at last!”
I hope to give both MCA shows more detailed consideration when the dust has settled on the opening festivities. Marking Time is a complex proposition: the latest in a long line of MCA exhibitions in which the concept is more interesting than the realisation. It includes works by international artists who deal broadly with the theme of ‘time’. The works may be conceptually acute, but they are visually uninspired. The chief exceptions are two arresting videos by Daniel Crooks; and a room that puts the hyper-patterned poles and bark paintings of Gulumbu Yunupingu alongside a new body of work by Lindy Lee. The latter consists of large sheets of paper marked with holes, and abstract patterns often created by rain water.
These pieces may owe their success to design elements rather than conceptual cunning, but they are more seductive to the eye than the works of most of the overseas artists. In this, there is a moral for the museum itself: Don’t get too hung up on names, reputations, or the avowed significance of works. What counts most of all is the overall effect on the viewer, assuming that viewer is not an art-world insider, but a person with a genuine desire to see the best art of our era. The new MCA has a much-improved building and the chance to make a fresh start with its audience. It is up to Macgregor and her colleagues to forget the hype and seize the day.
Museum of Contemporary Art:
Christian Marclay: The Clock, March 29 – June 03, 2012
Marking Time, March 29 – June 03, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 07, 2012