Newsletter 469

Published December 12, 2022
Sydney Modern extends the hand of welcome. Please not not feed the monsters

I’m in Melbourne for the Alexander McQueen launch at the National Gallery of Victoria, and the talk – needless to say – is all about Sydney Modern. As Sydney-Melbourne rivalry is supposedly one of the staple ingredients of Australian culture, it’s only natural this should be the case. In the past I felt Melbourne’s claims to be the arts capital were somewhat overstated, but there’s no denying that the past decade has seen the NGV charge ahead of every other public gallery through the quality of its exhibitions and and its ability to draw the crowds. McQueen, by the way, is going to be an enormous drawcard this summer.

Over this same decade the AGNSW has languished, putting all its energies into that great El Dorado – Sydney Modern. But now the project is a reality we have seen such an explosion of smugness and self-satisfaction, it’s been wondrous to behold. I was told that the NGV wasn’t represented at the Sydney Modern launch, which was considered very bad form, but upon inquiring with powers-that-be at the NGV, I found that the kind of invitation they received was tantamount to an insult. Neither were the Vics unique in being given this treatment. I’ve heard numerous complaints from people who expected to be invited to the launch and got the cold shoulder, or else were allotted a place in the queue for opening day!

I wasn’t invited to the opening festivities myself, but as I never expected to be, it was no big deal. I don’t actually believe the invitational debacle was deliberate. Invitation lists are notoriously fickle and unreliable. If they are handed over to inexperienced staff with insufficient instructions, chaos is the usual result. Nevertheless, when people have every right to expect an invitation and are ignored it leaves a bad impression. I’d like to see the AGNSW inviting more artists, rather than just their mates. Artists are the heart and soul of a state gallery, and wealthy donors and supporters love to meet them.

If the overwhelming fanfare for Sydney Modern is a vulgar, ephemeral thing – very Sydney, alas, then we musn’t discount Melbourne’s propensity for envy. Even when Sydney couldn’t care less what Melbourne is up to, the southern capital always has one eye on its northern rival. At the McQueen launch, more than one speaker pointedly referred to Melbourne as Australia’s cultural capital, perhaps in response to NSW Premier Perroquet’s devil-may-care claims that the AGNSW was not only the greatest gallery in Australia, but in the world (!)

The NGV needn’t worry too much. In time – I dare say, within the next 9 months – reality will begin to reassert itself. The novelty of Sydney Modern will wear off and attendances slide back to something close to previous levels. Melbourne’s continuing commitment to big, high-quality exhibitions will continue to pay off.

In the meantime, I’ve written a second, and hopefully final column on the Sydney Modern Project, looking mainly at the commissions and the rehang of the old gallery. I’ve still got very mixed feelings about the whole thing, and the Herald is still smoothing the rough edges of my comments in the printed version of the article. As usual, you should read the website posting (as of noon, every Tuesday) if you’d like the unexpurgated version.

The film being reviewed is Stars at Noon, Claire Denis’s adaptation of a 1986 novel by the late Denis Johnson. It’s a desperate love story set in a chaotic, tropical Nicaragua, that will do nothing for the local tourist industry. Johnson described the country as “hell” when he went there in 1980, shortly after the Sandinista revolution. Denis has updated the story to the present, but makes it seem just as hellish.

All things considered, it might be best to postpone that long-awaited Nicaraguan holiday and go take a peek at Sydney Modern instead.