Forget the cultural cringe; Sydney Modern is fantastic

A week from now, Sydney will get its first proper look at the largest addition to the city’s cultural fabric since the Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973. And I reckon you’re going to love it.

Sydney Modern, a $344 million expansion of the Art Gallery of NSW, will be officially opened on December 3 – more than a decade after a redevelopment of the historic institution was first floated.

It hasn’t always been a smooth journey. The gallery’s leadership, and the project’s architects and builders, have endured a backlash from some critics with tall poppy syndrome, fierce competition from within the arts sector for scarce capital funding, a global pandemic and the city’s wettest year on record to deliver a project which really realigns the city’s cultural identity.

Sydney Modern, which spills from The Domain down to Woolloomooloo Bay, during construction in September.

The gallery is not above criticism (it feels a bit off to have sold the naming rights to the building’s atrium to developer Aqualand, for instance) but Sydney Modern is brilliant, and I’ve never quite worked out why a touch of cultural cringe still lingers in Sydney. We should be proud of our institutions – old and new – and give them the capital and operating funding they deserve.

Many at the Herald have done a fantastic job documenting the gallery’s redevelopment but I want to mention arts writer Linda Morris, who has given our coverage a real depth of knowledge, and Julie Power, who has focused her considerable skills on the building’s architecture.

Late last month, Linda and Good weekend editor Katrina Strickland teamed up to write an excellent feature charting the highs and lows of the expansion through interviews with key figures such as gallery director Michael Brand. As Linda and Katrina wrote, the 17,000 square meter project nearly doubles both the gallery’s footprint and its exhibition space, taking the two-building campus to 40,000 square meters.

“It’s a building with the potential to change the way the city sees itself and is seen and, like Barangaroo to its west, alter the focal points around its harbor,” they wrote.

“It’s one that looks determinedly out to the world from its harborside locale, due to the architecture and art inside but also the intent of its creators, and there’s hope it will play a pivotal role in bringing international and interstate tourists back in a post- pandemic world.”

They also explore how $100 million of the $344 million price tag was raised through private donations from some of the city’s most influential identities, including Susan and Isaac Wakil, Gretel Packer, Gene Sherman, the Lowy family, Judith Neilson and Aussie Home Loans founder John Symond.

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