Sydney Modern Art Gallery - review by Rusty Compass
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Sydney Modern Art Gallery

| 01 Feb 2023
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Sydney Modern Art Gallery
Art Gallery Road, Sydney (next to Art Gallery of New South Wales) Nearest rail station - St James
01 Feb 2023

Sydney Modern, Sydney's newest art space, opened to much fanfare in late 2022. More than $300 million was spent on a major expansion of Sydney’s main gallery, the Victorian-era New South Wales Art Gallery. This is a new gallery complex next to the original. Apart from being next door to its older sibling, Sydney Modern feels like a wholly new proposition. Art lovers should allocate a full morning or afternoon to these two fabulous institutions.

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Hailed by the New South Wales government as the biggest cultural investment since the Opera House (big call), Sydney Modern marks a big step up for Sydney’s contemporary art scene.

Australian First Nations artists and international contemporary artists now have a huge new space in the centre of Sydney, right by the Domain.

The Yiribana First Nations gallery has been relocated and expanded from the old gallery building. It will greet you as you arrive.

Sydney Modern - NSW Art Gallery expansion
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Modern - Yiribana First Nations collection


The new exhibition spaces are large and bright and are being put to use with dramatic, often large pieces. Gallery critics have suggested the design was driven as much for hosting commercial events as art works.

Sydney Modern - NSW Art Gallery expansion -  Francis Upritchard’s Here Comes Everybody greets guests
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Modern - NSW Art Gallery expansion - Francis Upritchard’s Here Comes Everybody greets guests

The new glass structure, designed by Pritzker winning Japanese architects SANAA, adds 7000 square metres of exhibition space in a cluster of angled glass pavilions. Below is a World War II era fuel tank that has been repurposed as The Tank. Low light and large metallic objects in Adrian Villar Roja’s, The End of Imagination give The Tank a haunting feel - especially so on a quiet day.

Adrian Villar Roja’s, The End of Imagination in The Tank - Sydney Modern
Photo: Mark Bowyer Adrian Villar Roja’s, The End of Imagination in The Tank - Sydney Modern

There are lots of crowd pleasers for casual visitors starting with Francis Upritchard’s Here Comes Everybody assembly of huge blue long-limbed human figures that greets visitors in the outside courtyard. Yayoi Kusama’s colourful Flowers that Bloom will likely reappear aplenty on Tik Tok and Instagram.

Yayoi Kusama’s Flowers that Bloom - Sydney Modern
Photo: Mark Bowyer Yayoi Kusama’s Flowers that Bloom - Sydney Modern

The gallery’s ties to private interests can’t be easily missed. Sponsor’s names appear as you enter each new gallery - a who’s who of Sydney property development and gambling interests. The connection between philanthropy and contentious business interests is a pattern now well-established in major galleries and museums across the globe. At Sydney Modern it makes its big splash in Sydney.

Sydney Modern is a working name for the gallery for now. A more permanent name hasn’t yet been decided. There has been abundant creative and city-level controversy with the new project - as you'd expect of any audacious cultural investment. Naming the gallery and finalising the exterior garden plans, are among big decisions thus far unresolved.

Some are also concerned about the state of funding for Sydney’s cultural institutions. At time of writing, the city doesn’t seem to have funds to keep the doors properly open (6 or 7 days) at World Heritage Listed Hyde Park Barracks and other important small museums. Sydney Modern was fortunate to get the funding support it has so far. Some wonder about the stability of the recurrent funding pipeline.

Rusty Compass listings are always handpicked and independent. We recommend the places we think you should know about - like a friend would. That's it. Not an algorithm in sight. We pay our way and no money changed hands for this listing. We're transparent about commercial arrangements when they exist. We photograph the places as we find them without lighting, production, setups or the involvement of the venue. The intention is to capture places as they are, free of spin.



Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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