A Makeover for Contemporary Art in Sydney ; after a Huge Renovation, Museum in the Heart of the City Reopens Its Doors

By Brownell, Ginanne | International Herald Tribune, March 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Makeover for Contemporary Art in Sydney ; after a Huge Renovation, Museum in the Heart of the City Reopens Its Doors


Brownell, Ginanne, International Herald Tribune


After a huge renovation, the Museum of Contemporary Art has reopened its doors and refined its focus.

Few contemporary art museums can boast of having both a breathtaking view and a superb location in the heart of a city. But the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) here is doubly blessed.

First constructed for the Maritime Services Board in the 1950s with a faux 1930s facade, the museum is located in Circular Quay, in the heart of Sydney Harbor. "Its location has been central to its success," said Elizabeth Fortescue, an art critic for the city's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "And that will attract some people who think that contemporary art is not for them."

Since August 2010, the MCA has been undergoing a makeover worth 53 million Australian dollars, or about $56 million, and has gained 50 percent more space. It will reopen March 29 as the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia -- a name that reflects its status as the only contemporary art museum in the country with a permanent collection.

Though part of the museum reopened in December, despite the construction crews banging away, with a show by the Mexican- Canadian electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, the grand reopening will feature both an internationally focused show and one that highlights works by Australian contemporary artists. "Marking Time," which will examine how artists visualize time, will run until early June and feature 11 artists including Tatsuo Miyajima from Japan, Elisa Sighicelli from Italy and the aboriginal artist Gulumbu Yunupingu. The American-born artist Christian Marclay's video piece "The Clock," a 24-hour montage constructed from thousands of images from cinema and television edited together to create a single time piece, will be on display in a separate gallery.

The other show, "Volume One: MCA Collection," will feature works by more than 150 Australian artists collected by the MCA and will highlight the diversity of Australia's contemporary art scene over the last 20 years.

"The thing that is fantastic about the MCA is that there has been this incredible focus on international practice but it has never lost sight of local activity and local production," said Shaun Gladwell, a Sydney-born, London-based artist whose works will be featured in the show. "Having a larger institution will be a major asset for the city."

The institution has not always been seen in such a positive light, partly because of its complicated history. The MCA traces its roots to the Australian artist John Power (1881-1943), who bequeathed his money to the University of Sydney to educate Australians about contemporary art. Over the years, the J.W. Power collection bought pieces by Australian and international contemporary artists including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Joseph Beuys. The MCA was established with works from the collection, and in 1989, the New South Wales government gave a long lease to the museum.

While the university agreed to put up initial funding for the running costs there was never a commitment for long-term support, said the MCA's current director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. "They decided to charge money, which was part of the financial modeling," she said. Then the university began to withdraw funding, "and the museum's expectations to become fully independent were not realized," she added. "Things went into a tailspin," including negative articles in the local and national press.

The 1999 appointment of Ms. …

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