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  • Mar 05, 2020

Sydney Rejects Proposal to Turn Cockatoo Island Into Private Art Destination

Ariel view of

The Australian government agency Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which manages the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cockatoo Island, has turned down a privatization proposal to upgrade the island as an art and culture destination inspired by the Japanese island of Naoshima. The rejected submission came from nonprofit Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited, formed by local philanthropists, including several prominent Australian art patrons, in 2019. 

The Foundation pledged to provide AUD 80 million (USD 53 million) in funding for the initiative, although it estimated that AUD 200 million (USD 133 million) would be required. The Foundation asked that the federal government supplement its private philanthropic efforts and commit funds for the project's completion. 

The Sydney Harbour island was originally an Indigenous site that was transformed into a colonial prison in 1839, and later, a ship-building dockyard. It is scattered with historic buildings and heavy machinery and has no full-time residents. Since 2008, it has served as an official venue of Biennale of Sydney, during which its industrial buildings have temporarily housed artworks by artists including William Kentridge, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Ai Weiwei.

The Foundation aimed to, according to its proposal, remediate the “severely underused” site, and “to revive Cockatoo Island by transforming it into a sustainable, world class arts and culture destination.” Listed action points included reverting the island to its original Indigenous name, “Waremah,” permanently installing Australian and international artworks both indoors and outdoors, and creating “immersive” visitor experiences with virtual-reality installations as well as food and beverage offerings. The plan did not entail new museums or galleries to be built.

According to the Trust chairman Joseph Carrozzi, the plan was rejected due to it requiring a grant for the “whole of island lease” to a single group. The Trust itself is set to dissolve its operations beginning in 2033. Meanwhile, Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told The Sydney Morning Herald that “Sydney Harbour is a national asset . . . a precious resource, not a plaything for corporate interests.” The Foundation maintains that it would derive no personal commercial benefit from the project.

Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited is chaired by founding directors Anthony Berg, member of Canberra's National Gallery of Australia Foundation Board; Danny Goldberg, executive chairman of private equity firm Dakota Capital Australia; and Karen Martin. Simon Mordant, chairman of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, has been working with the group since its initiation however is not an official member of the group's founding board. While the Foundation was officially registered in 2019, negotiations with the Trust have been ongoing since 2016.

The island will showcase more than 30 artists and collectives for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, slated to run from March 14 until June 8.

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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