Is Sydney a Great Art City?


Mounting an argument for Sydney being a great art city looks promising. The New South Wales Government belatedly pledges $244 million from the privatisation of “poles and wires” electricity businesses towards the ambitious Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney Modern extension. Meanwhile, the innovative cross-art form venue Carriageworks, at the former Eveleigh rail yards, aspires to join the building boom, with its own planned expansion boasting more exhibition space and a new 200-seat cinematheque, a sorely needed feature in a city that calls itself a UNESCO City of Film.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia continues to expand its collection as the only public institution in the country dedicated to both collecting and exhibiting contemporary art, its 2012 facelift having birthed new wings. Sydney Contemporary is thus far a successful art fair, where a previous Melbourne equivalent faltered, while the Sydney Biennale makes innovative use of old shipyards and jail cells at Cockatoo Island every two years.

The Emerald City surely can lay claim to cultural heft, at least apace with interstate cities, even if predictably overshadowed by European art destinations. But not everyone agrees. In a recent New York Times article, Pulitzer Prize-winning, Australian-born Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee argued that a lack of tradition of private giving to state-owned cultural institutions and a long delay in pinning down public funding for Sydney Modern, were symptoms he says of Sydney’s “deep ambivalence toward culture”.

“This is a city in love with the idea that it punches above its weight,” writes Smee. “But it remains better known for light shows, sports spectaculars and fireworks than for great art.”

Artist Julie Rrap, who has taught in several of the city’s art schools, says Sydney has raised or attracted many great contemporary artists: “We punch above our weight on this score, given distance and small population.”

Oslo Davis - Sydney 6 - Artist 2
Illustration by Oslo Davis.

Rrap names mixed-media artist Justene Williams and video artist Shaun Gladwell, who now splits his time between London and Sydney, as well as the Blue Mountains-based multi-sensory collaborators David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, as great artists. Important Indigenous artists such as Cairns-born Daniel Boyd and Townsville-born Tony Albert work in Sydney, she notes, while British émigrés Jacky Redgate and Hilarie Mais and Sydney-born Mikala Dwyer, are among the women artists who have been “a force” here.

Then there are “important historical figures” that have built careers in Sydney, says Lismore-born Rrap, such as her own brother, performance artist Mike Parr, and Brisbane-born visual artist Tracey Moffatt. The problem, says Rrap, who has just returned from the Venice Biennale where Moffatt’s work is being exhibited, is one of perception; a lack of our artists being considered for the curated parts of such international shows.

“Cities become known as great art cities because of the visibility of their artists,”

Smee, says Rrap, is to be applauded if his intention is to “embarrass” this city’s elders for a long-term lack of support for the arts, but he is also in a position to promote our great artists in New York. “Cities become known as great art cities because of the visibility of their artists,” she says.

“I agree in part that Sydney likes the spectacle of big attractions like Vivid, the New Year reworks, and of course sport is our image,” says Rrap. “I think the city could take advantage of these more public expressions with some really great public art works. Melbourne is certainly better on that score. Sydney is improving but I think it could develop more interesting approaches to fostering work by artists in city spaces. Temporary, ephemeral events would be great.”

Sydney would have more people going to art galleries than a season of test cricket, argues Sydney gallerist Tim Olsen. Given soaring housing costs in this city in particular, and tightening of self-managed superannuation funds, a lot of Sydneysiders are more concerned with servicing mortgages than buying art.

“The art market’s had a pretty tough time,” says Olsen. “There’s always a market for Nolans or Boyds or Whiteleys, because they’re owned by people who are wealthy beyond caring. But mid-career artists are the ones who are really being kicked.”

Olsen’s Newcastle-born artist father John, now 89, once said an artist that hasn’t “made it” in Melbourne hasn’t made it in Australia. Tim Olsen argues that Melbourne retains its edge, “intellectually speaking… without question”. But it doesn’t always hang onto that leading position. “Sydney is the only one with a decent art fair left,” he says. “The stupidity of Melbourne is it involves itself in snobbery and politics. Sydney has become the new exciting place for contemporary art because of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and it’s the only one with a serious art fair.” Although Melbourne Art Fair’s recent announcement of a return in 2018 may prompt some to debate this point.

Oslo Davis - Sydney 5 - Art Fair 2
Illustration by Oslo Davis.

What chance though of a Sydney-based artist making a splash internationally? Olsen says the late art critic Robert Hughes once jokingly told his father: “Someone should tie Australia to a tug boat and tow it out to sea.”

“Of course America is the serious art world; of course Europe is a serious art scene,” says Tim Olsen. “Sydney, Melbourne — Australia’s always going to struggle, you know? That’s because there’s a tyranny of distance. But I’ll often travel overseas and come back and go, ‘Oh, actually, we’re not that bad’.”

Olsen blames “toxic conceptual art snobbery” that means internationally, “Australia struggles to get into serious art fairs,” leading to a misconception our artists lack gravitas.

Sydney doesn’t have big money artists that hit international headlines, such as Britain’s Damien Hirst or the US’s Jeff Koons, says Sydney Contemporary CEO Barry Keldoulis, but our artists are doing a good job of representing, questioning and building our culture.

“Although we like to put ourselves down, we actually do pretty well compared to our self-image,” says Keldoulis, blaming media for this cultural cringe, with headlines that “create binary, adversary situations that aren’t necessarily accurate, such as the art versus sport dynamic”.

Keldoulis takes issue with the assertion that Sydney lacks a tradition of private giving to the arts. He cites philanthropists who’ve recently stepped into the spotlight, such as Simon Mordant, Andrew Cameron, White Rabbit Gallerist Judith Nielson and her former husband Kerr Nielson, and the Belgiorno-Nettis family.

Art philanthropy exists in Sydney; it’s just understated, he says, within a “healthy balance” of government, corporate and private giving: “We’re not America, and that’s probably not a bad thing.”

“The marvellous thing about Sydney is how much the artists interact with commercial galleries and artist-run spaces and the museums. They’re accessible. They add an energy and dynamism to the art scene that doesn’t necessarily happen in Europe…”

Sydney gallerist Sarah Cottier says Sydney is a “fantastic art city; that’s something to do with our isolation geographically, that makes for concentrated, intensive experiences. The marvellous thing about Sydney is how much the artists interact with commercial galleries and artist-run spaces and the museums. They’re accessible. They add an energy and dynamism to the art scene that doesn’t necessarily happen in Europe where galleries might be showing artists that live in other countries and continents”.

Sydney has developed pockets of galleries clustered together, offering diverse programs, says Cottier. “So you can get a wide experience just walking around a small bit of territory.”

But is Sydney becoming another New York — its art market minus its artists, priced out of living and working here?

Sydney lets down its emerging and mid-career artists, argues Julie Rrap. Vibrant cities should maintain a cross-section of influences to attain “colour and depth”, yet “exorbitant rents” are forcing more people out of the city centre, she says. Many empty spaces could be gainfully used as artist studios or for gallery events. Sydney is slowly losing young people in the arts, be it visual, music or theatre, Rrap believes.

Oslo Davis - Sydney 4 - Sydney Property 2
Illustration by Oslo Davis.

Artists can be very resourceful under threat to their continued practice, says Barry Keldoulis, citing the former industrial building in Birmingham Street in inner-city Alexandria that is now home to about 20 artists, banding together against a tide of gentrification. The City of Sydney, too, and the former Marrickville Council — now part of the amalgamated Inner West Council — have been innovative in providing artists with studio spaces.

“I think perhaps the New South Wales Government needs to wake up and do a little bit more to ensure that artists can have space to work,” says Keldoulis, who wants artists to be considered as providing an essential service. “I don’t think enough is being done to maintain inner-city housing for our nurses, ambulance and fire people, but I think artists’ work needs to be called an essential service, too, to keep the culture.

The reason people move to the city is a density gives it a sense of being a cultural hub, and you don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg by not enabling artists to maintain their presence in the cityscape.”

Perhaps some Sydneysiders and Sydney artists fail to see a great art city on their doorstep because they don’t get the opportunity to see enough of the work of their own fellow residents. When Sydney Modern is completed in time for the 150th anniversary of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2021, it will have caught up with the major public institution refurbishments that have already occurred in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.

Julie Rrap says that this will mean more of the gallery’s collection of contemporary Australian art will be exposed, and none too soon. At present, she says, “such institutions don’t provide audiences and students studying visual art enough exposure to our history of contemporary visual art, which creates a sort of amnesia about the development of ideas in this country”.

Feature Words by Steve Dow