The Art Gallery of NSW: The Master Plan Revealed

March 6, 2013
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Mention a “Master Plan” and people start thinking about Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. Yesterday that role was shared between Steven Lowy, President of Trustees, and Director, Michael Brand, as they unveiled their wicked new vision for the Art Gallery of NSW. Lowy gave us the bad news about the existing gallery – it’s too small compared to all the other galleries; Brand gave us the good news about the future – we’re going to make the AGNSW much, much bigger.

The plan was delivered in the most immaculate corporate style, more like a presentation from the Westfield group than the jokey, louche style that characterised Edmund Capon’s directorship. It was lucid, ambitious, comprehensive – an impressive package.

The only elephant in the room, or perhaps not in the room, was the large cheque from the Lowy family that the media had been anticipating for the past week, following a $663.7 million sale of a stake in the Westfield Retail Trust. In a lacklustre press conference afterwards, Steven Lowy explained: “Today is not about funding. Today is about the vision. We will endeavour to work with stakeholders to make this vision a reality.”

Presumably there will be a large donation forthcoming, but not right away.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that if this were a major museum in the United States, the focal point of the presentation would have been a pledge from the wealthiest family in the room for a couple of hundred million, just to kick off the fund-raising campaign. This is not, however, the Australian way. In this country one may sit on any number of prestigious cultural boards and never make a donation. On the contrary, you are paid a small stipend for your services.

With a projected cost of $400 million it will require a lot of dedicated fundraising and lobbying to meet the targets. Sydney is not like Hong Kong, where Michael Lynch arrived to take charge of the West Kowloon Cultural District, and found a couple of billion waiting for him in the bank. There were moments yesterday when it seemed that Michael Brand was going to pass the hat around among the audience.

The vision thing is now out of the way, and it is a vision resplendent. There is a lot to like about this plan, and the way it repositions the gallery as a centre of Sydney’s social and cultural life, both day and night. It represents a fantastic opportunity. All we need now is the money.