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February 20, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:38pm

Philanthropy, Multiculturalism and Contemporary Art in Sydney

By Spear's


A perfect storm of money, mature multiculturalism and matter-of-fact Aussie audacity, gathering for years, has burst over the Contemporary art scene in Sydney — and the results are spectacular, says Josh Spero
CLOCK-WATCHING IS usually a sign of boredom, yet for Liz Ann Macgregor, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, it is a sign of triumph. It is no bejewelled horological contraption that she has acquired, but one of only two loan editions of The Clock, the most celebrated and popular piece of Contemporary art of recent years.

Christian Marclay spent years editing any time, clock or watch reference he could find in the movies into a 24-hour film which operates in real time. A black and white sailor checks his watch at 12.04; Richard Gere in American Gigolo licks some cocaine from a mirror next to his bedside clock, which says 12.05. An entire day is filled by these excerpts, each precisely positioned. A miracle of patience and ingenuity to make, it has thrilled viewers as well as critics, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year. It stimulates with its shifts in tone, colour, mood and scene even as it challenges the (un)reality of films and our relationship to time.

Every art gallery in the world was after The Clock. Only a few, including Tate Modern and MoMA, could afford a million dollars for their own copy, and the MCA isn’t even in the world’s top 50 museums by visitor numbers — so why did it end up with The Clock? The answer, in part, is Macgregor’s personal prestige and her dynamic resuscitation of the MCA: a former director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and recent recipient of the OBE, she has been in Australia since 1999 and has almost overseen the complete renovation (financial and physical) of the museum. Now a bold new extension Macgregor masterminded has gone up alongside the main building on Sydney Harbour. As I saw on a hard-hat tour, it has the perfect white cube for The Clock.

She has brought big names like Olafur Eliasson, Bridget Riley and Annie Leibovitz to the MCA for shows, and in the only reopened space when I visited was the prize-winning Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who works in electronica. Pulse Room, for example, features 99 lightbulbs brightening and dimming to the rhythm of visitors’ pulses; each new visitor donates their pulse, all the lights shut off, and when they reignite the new pulse has displaced the 99th. The show will be a witty, interactive crowd-pleaser, but it’s more profound than that would imply. Lozano-Hemmer, who was installing his work, told me that the MCA has been one of the most welcoming galleries he’s shown at, and described the entire Australian arts scene positively.

Although the MCA was not far from being finished in December, its halls looked like someone had been experimenting with a rocket launcher as a decorating tool. Lifts didn’t work, the brickwork of walls was exposed, lights lit little. Everywhere was dust and dustsheets. Macgregor was crammed into a tiny cubicle on the fifth floor; bookshelves stood precariously over her desk and it looked like one sneeze  might turn their Contemporary art contents into an avant-garde avalanche.

The previous layout of the ‘incredibly confusing’ museum, she said, had low ceilings, poor circulation, two entrances on different levels. Having searched initially for simple fixes, it dawned on Macgregor that a full overhaul, with a quarter more space for art and a large expansion of their educational rooms, would serve the MCA better. Thanks to digital technology and governmental participation, a lesson in one of the new classrooms can be relayed to every school in New South Wales.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulso Room (2006)
MACGREGOR PRESSED ON a hard hat and fished out pink-toed Doc Martens from under her desk, and we tramped out of the museum, an elegant Deco sandstone palace loomed over by ugly modern towers. (Sydney Harbour is popularly perceived as a beautiful skyscape, but it has few redeeming buildings.) After I had suited up, we threaded our way along scaffold gangways to the front of the extension, where gigantic glass doors were being fitted.

Up the main stairs, a temporary sign indicated that this was the Mordant Extension, named for Simon Mordant, co-CEO of a corporate advisory firm and a long-term Contemporary collector, who gave AU$15 million (£10 million) to the redevelopment, almost a third of the cost. Macgregor is enthusiastic about her responsive donors: ‘You’ll see when most of the names go up, it’s a small number of donors who’ve given a very significant part of the money. A couple in the last week or two have topped up their donations to help us get closer to the finishing line.’ To attract necessary yet reticent private donors, as public and corporate funding diminishes, ‘You have to sell them your vision and your passion,’ wooing them while preserving your independence. Macgregor, with her pride and savvy, is a convincing salesperson.
THE REASON THE MCA got The Clock is broader than one museum. The Contemporary art culture of Sydney, for many years marginalised internationally and miniature locally, has enjoyed a flourishing, with strong exhibitions by global and local artists, a thriving roster of urban galleries and foundations, diverse new venues for art, an integration into popular culture and philanthropic support. Its established programme — like the Sydney Biennale — has expanded and its novelties are attracting the weekending local, just as has happened in London.

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One trend that Sydney has been leading is art on islands. Just as Frieze New York will daringly be on Randall’s Island, the Sydney Biennale has been using Cockatoo Island — now misleadingly populated with killer seagulls — in the harbour for its past two editions. A shipyard during the Second World War, massive halls remain and the 2012 Biennale (27 June-16 September) has commissioned site-specific work, including two giant weblike paper sculptures which will start at either end of one space and intertwine in the middle. A low tunnel runs under the island’s rocky peak and paintings can be exhibited on its walls. Like other decrepit factories and military bases, there is a poignancy which intensifies the experience of art, although there is plenty of vivacity too: a vibrant street-art show had just finished and some of its artefacts were still in situ.

Involving the local community as much as the international art crowd has been key. In London at the end of November, I had lunch with Marah Braye, the CEO of the Sydney Biennale, who said using Cockatoo Island had ‘started to generate a new audience for Contemporary art as people were fascinated by the experience’ of visiting it. There is a (relatively) luxurious campsite for those who want to stay overnight. Another sign of this inclusiveness is the John Baldessari project from last year’s Sydney Festival, a summer-long urban celebration of all art forms, where 100,000 people saw their name appear in lights for 15 seconds, accelerating Warhol’s dictum.

Even the grandest art institution is throwing open its doors for a more welcoming, informal approach. On my second evening in Sydney, I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a Neoclassical building reminiscent of the National Gallery, but with a hideous Modernist insertion for its temporary shows (the average Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, when I was there) and some astoundingly renovated floors for its Contemporary collection. As part of their ‘Art After Hours’ programme, the galleries were open until ten, a modern klezmer band were performing in the atrium to a 200-strong audience and there was an extraordinary queue in the bookstore as it was discount day for friends of the museum. The Picasso was packed out.

Once it has lured the public in, AGNSW can offer them one of the most stunning Contemporary collections anywhere, the gift of textile manufacturer John Kaldor. This philanthropic gesture, containing more than 200 pieces and worth at least AU$35 million (£24 million), has endowed AGNSW to compete with global institutions. Among its strong collection of modern German photographers, Andreas Gursky’s renowned Chicago Mercantile Exchange (1997), pointillist with traders in orange and red jackets, hangs diagonally across from a seminal Robert Rauschenberg, which consists of a wooden panel in a rubber tyre. Richard Long has made a site-specific mud-splatter work, and Ugo Rondinone has installed 52 window frames with coloured mirrors instead of glass. A Bill Viola video, a crowded yet intimate Thomas Struth photo from Stanza della Segnatura in Rome, a maximum of Minimalists — AGNSW could not have been luckier.

More than this, there is a superb iPad app with video interviews (Christo, Kiefer, Koons) and analysis, providing background and interpretation of what can be forbidding — if attractive — work. There is certainly both cause and effect in this expansive gift: a receptive audience is encouraged further.
Andreas Gursky’s Chicago Mercantile Exchange (1997), courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales
WHEN THE CHAUFFEUR called for me at the Shangri-La on my third morning, thoughts of the demotic aspect of Contemporary art started to drain away. Thankfully, it was merely an elegant part of Isobel Johnston’s art tour, not a sign of the scene. As a Sydneysider and arts insider, Isobel had arranged meetings with artists in their studios and conversations with gallerists, intimate introductions to the power players. En route to meet Janet Laurence, one of Australia’s foremost Contemporary artists, we pulled over at a run-down factory wall on which Aboriginal artist Brook Andrew had pasted large black and white posters of archetypes who might have worked there in the Fifties. There was also a windsock Andrew designed in striking Aboriginal patterns and colour flailing above a building.

Laurence’s soppy mutt bounded about her bright studio. Floor-length filmy white curtains diffused the summer light around the clear plastic shelves, which held elongated test tubes with botanical liquids, a bell jar over an ivy wreath wrapped in black gauze, flasks of all shapes and sizes. It looked like the laboratory of a beneficent mad scientist. On a table was a maquette for an upcoming show: twigs and animal photographs behind miniature white curtains, applying a certain intrigue to familiar nature.

Laurence obscures her sculptures because ‘when you can’t just see directly, you often become more intensely involved’. Her work Verdant creates the same effect by layering photos of gardens, plants, lawns and forests printed on to glass, and it makes sense that she has a quotation lying about from WG Sebald, who also saw the mystery in nature. Laurence talks kindly about a benefactor who’s funding a book to go with her next show and has paid for her to create work for AGNSW.

‘A lot of those people want a richer culture and they realise they don’t want more [money] for themselves,’ she says, explaining the closely connected base of local philanthropic support for Contemporary art. ‘If a bomb went off’ at the recent retirement party for Edmund Capon, director of AGNSW, ‘you would lose all the art support in Sydney.’

Next stop was White Rabbit, which holds the Chinese Contemporary collection of Kerr and Judith Neilson. Refuting the exclusivity presumed an essential part of the Contemporary art scene in London and New York, Judith Neilson was in the café talking to a group of Chinese schoolchildren sitting under tiny empty birdcages suspended from the ceiling.

A former knitting factory, White Rabbit reflects trends both good and bad in Chinese art: the Neilsons had a pile of Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds before Tate Modern and a glorious painting by Xie Molin, whose thick waves of paint were shaped by computer, but equally there was Mickey Mouse as Saint Sebastian. What became clear at White Rabbit was the integration of patrons, practitioners of Contemporary art and public in Sydney society: while Aussie distaste for status may be easily parodied, it was here borne out.

The rest of the tour was strong evidence for the importance of philanthropy to the scene and of the scene’s changing accessibility. At the dna projects gallery, owner David Corbet said that philanthropy was responsible for ‘some of the best work being presented in Australia — MONA, White Rabbit, the Sherman Foundation’, private collections in public spaces.

Having their name above a museum gallery’s entrance had its charms too, he added wryly. This top-down enthusiasm was matched on the ground — and on the walls. Corbet’s current show was appealing, with work reflecting ‘a move away from formalism’ towards art which is ‘more reactive to the issues around society’, amusing as well as po-faced. There was a frankly arousing photographic self-portrait by Eric Bridgeman as a labourer, skin whitened to pallor, smeared red lips like the Joker, wearing a neon green helmet and bright yellow shorts. As a confrontation of Australia’s racial history and sexual mores, it excelled.
THANKS TO THE patronage of Anna Schwartz, international names are not absent. Her gallery space in Carriageworks, a massive former railway workshop in the suburb of Redfern which also houses a theatre and a restaurant under its grey corrugated roof, represents Antony Gormley, Joseph Kosuth and Yinka Shonibare. As I talked to gallery director Simeon Kronenberg, Shaun Gladwell’s dynamic videos on themes of masculinity and youth played in the darkness.

Kronenberg said that even ten years ago, a gallery selling video art or bringing someone like Shonibare to Australia ‘wouldn’t have been so easy or so expected’. To see Australian galleries and indeed artists as parochial is a serious error, in his view, because they mingle and compete with the rest of the world on equal terms, despite the distance. (At the MCA, Liz Ann Macgregor had mentioned that the artistic director of Documenta was including a high number of Australian artists because she had been inspired by her visits.)

Perhaps the summation of all of these issues — philanthropy, populism, internationalism — was the final stop on the tour, the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in the Westbourne Grove-esque suburb of Paddington: Gene Sherman, a former academic, gives major artists AU$100,000 (£67,000) and eighteen months ‘to do something they’ve always wanted to do’, said gallery director Dolla Merrillees.

This current ‘want’ was Tokujin Yoshioka’s: he had filled the room with heaps of clear plastic drinking straws. As bizarre as this sounds, all these straws in piles under the lights produced a blinding luminescence, hazily suffusing the gallery. Sitting at a table outside, Merrillees compared Sherman’s ability to fund projects with that of institutions, which are relatively risk-averse.

A common thread through these galleries and museums and studios has been their willingness to be daring, partly thanks to their support from Sydney’s arts philanthropists, who seem happier with audacious failures than complacent acceptability. The increasing popularity of this art, its social and cultural integration, is both cause and effect of this, a virtuous nexus of funding, daring and viewing.

It’s thus no surprise that White Cube would be willing to let the MCA have Marclay’s prize piece since they can be sure it’s going to an appreciative audience. Sydney is finally asserting its place on the world’s Contemporary art circuit: clock it.;;;

Josh flew Qantas ( on the A380 to Australia and while in Sydney stayed at the Shangri-La ( Visit for more information.
Josh Spero is editor at Spear’s.
Gursky courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales

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