Within days of taking up his new role on June 25 as director of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Michael Brand learned that AUD 1.2 million had been slashed from the AGNSW’s annual operating budget by the New South Wales state government. The deficit represents about five percent of the Art Gallery’s yearly grant, the majority of which covers salaries. With such a shortfall, Brand admits, “there may be redundancies.”
The New South Wales state government defended its position by saying that annual arts funding across the board was increased to $377 million, up from $345 million the previous year. But several cultural institutions, including the AGNSW, are effected by cuts; the Sydney Opera house must find ways to save $6.8 million over four years and the Australian Museum’s 2012–13 grant was cut by $500,000.
In an exclusive interview with ArtAsiaPacific, Brand talked freely about the realities of running the Art Gallery and the thorny issue of introducing entrance fees to compensate the smaller budget. “I think there is something very important about free entry to art museums and that would be the last thing I would want to change. However the cut is major,” he said.
Brand was speaking in his office, which has views over Sydney’s harbor and the Garden Island naval base. While the view is worth millions, the office has the ascetic severity of a monastic cell. There hasn’t been any time to put art works on the bare white walls, and the bookcase remains devoid of books, he points out, in obvious embarrassment. Only his computer sits on the dark wooden desk among carefully ordered papers.
“The main thing is, we have a sensible process in place, discussing [the budget] with staff openly and listening to their suggestions. $1.2 million is a lot to find,” he said.
One area he sees as ripe for introducing savings is in ending the regimen of exclusivity that Australian cities seem to favor with ”blockbuster” exhibitions brought in from overseas that only visit one venue, in one city. He would like, instead, to see a shift toward a system in which shows brought in from overseas are toured to different capital cities, allowing costs to be shared across several galleries.
“Exclusivity is a marketing thing. It’s where the art museum world and the major event world cross over, designed to bring in tourism from outside the city. Exclusivity means you have to take the risk that you will get the audience, carrying the costs of the show yourself. Also, off the shelf shows do not necessarily build expertise within the gallery. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is one of the challenges I face with my colleagues and an issue that needs to be recognized. Undoubtedly, the landscape changes with exclusivity and given the distances involved in bringing shows to Australia, one can imagine overseas directors would favor their art being seen in two or three cities.”
Building partnerships with other galleries would also allow Brand to mount what he describes as “cheap and small shows,” drawn from the gallery’s own collection; a pragmatic approach that has found favor in many northern hemisphere countries as the global financial crisis has deepened and belts have tightened.
Financial expediency aside, the issue of exhibition space within the gallery also features high on the new director’s agenda. “Everyone recognizes we have run out of space. Every piece of space within this building is being used and this issue was certainly one that was discussed before I took the job.”
Only last year, Australian architect Andrew Andersons transformed the AGNSW’s basement into an exhibition gallery, earmarked to feature the $35 million Kaldor Family Gift collection. Previously, the space had been used to store art works which have now been relocated off site. “[It’s obvious] we have created as much space as we can for the public in the most cost effective way. There is nothing more we can do in the existing building.”
If exhibition space is going to be a challenge for Brand, then acquisitions to put in that space will be too. With no government acquisitions budget, all new acquisitions must be donations received or bought using funds raised from philanthropists or the general public. “Everything comes back to the collection; and making sure that we improve the collection in a serious and significant way is why we are a public art gallery with a public collection. Everything we do has to emerge from the collection. There is nothing more important that I do than talking with the trustees and curators about bringing great works of art into the collection. And it is a challenge because we don’t receive public funding for acquisitions,” he said.
While acknowledging the strength of the AGNSW’s Asian holdings, Brand has also identified what he perceives as a limited world view at the gallery, even though the Kaldor gift has gone some way in alleviating obvious deficiencies by steering the gallery towards global ambitions with a 20th and 21st century focus. “Sydney is an international city and we shouldn’t be constrained and limited by the [Asian] region. The gallery doesn’t have a major Warhol and that is a glaring omission for a gallery like us. Pop Art is an important part of the museum and not to have a Warhol is an issue. Also, we need to give students and the public an idea about what is going on in New York or Los Angeles, and not necessarily through acquisitions of masterpieces.”
Regarding the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art—which regularly issues media releases about record attendance figures—becoming a possible rival, Brand said, “Friendly competition is good. It is good for artists and it is good for the public to have more than one contemporary art institution in a city like Sydney. Choice means more.”