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Newsletter 303

Published September 9, 2019
Sydney Modern finds a contractor at last

After much argy-bargy it seems the Art Gallery of NSW has finally found a builder for Sydney Modern. Having taken so many years to raise the necessary funds, even after reducing the proposed cost by roughly $100 million to $344 million, we’re on the verge of seeing some action. The last obstacle may have been Lendlease pulling out of the construction job, allegedly because it couldn’t work within the allocated budget. Richard Crookes Constructions is the lucky applicant who has been selected to build the thing on the cheap.

One can only wonder what sort of margins the company is working with, and whether various corners will be cut in order to stay close to the budget. As anyone who has ever dealt with builders knows, it’s common for costs to blow out due to a range of X factors. On big projects the chances are proportionately greater.

My problem with Sydney Modern, right from the start, has been two-fold. Firstly, I’ve wondered how the government can justify the expense of building – and more crucially, maintaining – a huge new gallery when it has been simultaneously pulling money out of the AGNSW’s coffers via the notorious “effciency dividend” that penalises an institution if it doesn’t reach various targets. It doesn’t argue any great faith in the AGNSW that Gladys’s mob have forced such a huge cut in the building budget when they are happy to throw money at sporting stadiums, or persist in the lunatic, ultra-expensive scheme of moving the Powerhouse to Parramatta.

This government has been so care-free with contracts that they’ve allowed the ‘light’ rail to run a billion dollars over budget, but Sydney Modern has to scrimp.

The second issue is content. Over the past 6-7 years the AGNSW has fallen behind other public galleries when it comes to exhibition planning and design. Just compare the kind of catalogues that have been coming out of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Victoria!

Despite a burst of activity that saw three original shows at the end of last year, it has been slim pickings for a long time, with mostly package shows and rearrangements of the collection disguised as exhibitions. The Archibald Prize has been extended beyond all reckoning as the gallery’s only guaranteed money-spinner. The forthcoming Kaldor show will run for more than five months. Is this all going to change with the advent of Sydney Modern? I think we’re in flying pig territory. To go with the new extension the AGNSW needs a new culture and a new attitude. Conservatism, penny-pinching and denial has not worked. If Sydney Modern is to be more than an expensive albatross the gallery will have to completely rethink its approach.

I’m looking at two shows this week: Nusra Latif Qureshi’s Strategies of Intent at Gallery 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, and Adam Chang’s Chinese Iconat Nanda Hobbs. In the latter case I’m really only focussing on one picture: a huge portrait of Chinese President, Xi Jinping – a striking but problematic work in these days when fear and suspicion are creeping back into all our dealings with China. While there are lots of reasons why this is the case – just ask the NSW Labor Party! – it seems a backward step to start refusing assistance with Chinese language courses. If Australians are really worried about China they should make strenuous efforts to learn the language and understand the way people think.

Qureshi’s show is in many ways more overtly political, but she’s looking at the legacy of colonialism rather than the fresh anxieties of the present.

This week’s movie is Andrea Berloff’s The Kitchen, a disappointing attempt at a feminist-gangster hybrid. It’s another promising idea that has gone awry, largely because of a failure of tone. In brief: it’s hard to deal with characters that are supposed to be sympathetic but act in a repellant manner. I’d argue that it’s taking affirmative action a little too far when it ends in extortion and murder.