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  • Nov 01, 2009

Government Greenlights Expensive New Public Museum

Digital rendering of University of New South Wales

Australia’s largest city will open a major new public gallery, its third, in addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Federal Government Education Investment Fund announced support for the project as part of its budget in May this year, covering AUD 48 million (USD 42 million) of the total cost of AUD 58 million.

The development will allow the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts (COFA) to substantially redevelop its existing ramshackle site—an amalgamation of buildings incorporating offices, student studios and a gallery—on the fringes of Sydney’s Central Business District, and break ground on an ambitious new construction, the COFA Gallery. The university museum will be more than three times the size of its current exhibition space, which will close in December after 30 years.

The university will provide the final AUD 10 million needed for this redevelopment, now named Gateway@COFA. Completion is scheduled for September 2011.

Professor Ian Howard, COFA’s dean, told ArtAsiaPacific, “the [budget] announcement was a great endorsement of the government’s recognition of the broad role that art and design play in the economy, education and society.” It comes on the heels of last year’s government-commissioned report on visual literacy, or, in its own words, “visuacy,” that called for art and design to become as integral a part of the education syllabus as mathematics and English.

The green light for the project comes at a particularly sensitive time for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which has been struggling since last December to raise the final 23 million of the AUD 57 million needed to build a proposed extension to its iconic Circular Quay site on the Sydney Harbor foreshore. The director of the MCA, Elizabeth Ann McGregor, has been tirelessly lobbying the federal government for the funds without success. Earlier this year the federal minister for the arts (and one-time frontman of legendary rock group Midnight Oil) Peter Garrrett made it clear to AAP that any funding for the MCA extension could only come through the federal budget, since all potential sources of private investment have been exhausted. No government money has been made available so far for the MCA, and the next budget will not be announced until May 2010.

Howard says the COFA project, nine years in the making and conceived as an AUD 1 million extension, got the money “because [it] is broader than just a museum project. It creates a gateway that will bring the latest art education and research that the college is engaged in into the public arena.” The COFA gallery program will be evenly split between locally and internationally curated shows, drawing on ties that have been established over many years between the college and institutions around the world. “We have links with some of the world’s most adventurous and best curators,” said the COFA dean. 

Earlier this year David Elliott, artistic director of the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, curated “The Quick and the Dead,” a collection of video art that featured early work by Bill Viola, Susan Hiller and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook at COFA. The video artist and Australian representative at this year’s Venice Biennale, Shaun Gladwell, is an alumnus who has also exhibited in recent shows organized by the college.

The architect for the project is Australian firm Architectus, which designed the hugely popular Gallery of Modern Art  (GoMA) in Brisbane, home to the upcoming 6th edition of the Asia-Pacific Triennial opening December 5. A 2007 visit to GoMA confirmed Howard’s belief that only architects with a track record of designing museum and art-gallery spaces should tender proposals for the project. “There is a tendency for cutting-edge architects to always use expensive materials to create spaces that ultimately enhance their reputations. We wanted a proposal where the aesthetic qualities came out of the design rather than the finishes.”

While the overall project is likely to come in on budget, one item that Howard sees as critical to the final build remains unfunded. Richard Goodwin, one of Australia’s leading sculptors and the 2004 honoree of the prestigious Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award in 2004, has designed a giant airplane wing, complete with moving ailerons, that proposes to straddle the entrance to the gallery and reach out from the site and cross the adjoining road. With its sense of 1950s glamor and technological innovation, the Goodwin work is critical to the site, says Howard, who is confident that he will find the AUD 250,000 needed to buy it. 

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