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Sydney’s flagship museum is entirely focused on building a costly extension. Why?

Unless the Art Gallery of New South Wales begins to focus more on exhibitions, there is every reason to believe that Sydney Modern will be a gigantic and costly flop

Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA SANAA

Ever since 1997, when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum turned Bilbao into an unlikely tourist magnet, there has been a belief that a “destination” building is the key to solving a gallery’s every problem. Alas, in most cases, there has been a surge of interest for the first few months, and then everything has returned to normal. Everything, that is, except the massive extra costs associated with staffing and maintaining the new addition. By now, one might imagine that the art museums of the world had lost faith in the idea: “Build it and they will come.”

Not in Sydney. For the past five years, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) has been engaged in a monomaniacal quest to build Sydney Modern, a new extension that would double the exhibition space of a gallery that has undergone five extensions since 1972. The plan was announced in May 2013 by the institution’s director Michael Brand, who had taken over from the long-serving Edmund Capon only the year before. It was endorsed by the then president of the board of trustees, Steven Lowy, the co-chief executive of the powerful Westfield property group. The provisional budget was set at AUD$450m ($339m).

That very week, the Lowy family had cashed in a stake in a trust for AUD$663.7m, so it was anticipated that proceedings would culminate in a generous donation. In fact, there was nothing. The purpose of the press conference had been to outline “the vision”; the cash would be sought from the New South Wales government and private sources. In the US, it would be unthinkable for such a project to be pitched to a packed auditorium without the promise of a single cent, but that is what happened.

After an international competition, the gallery chose the Japanese firm Sanaa to design Sydney Modern. The plans are controversial because the building is set to occupy a large area of green space managed by the Royal Botanic Garden. Leading experts, including the architect Andrew Andersons, who designed the AGNSW’s 1988 extension, have criticised the scheme and have advanced alternative proposals, but the AGNSW has no intention of backing down.

The scheme has been partially revised because of the difficulty of securing funds. Several nips and tucks brought the budget down to AUD$344m, and in June last year, the New South Wales government finally chipped in AUD$244m, leaving the remainder to be raised through private and corporate donations.

This is the same government that recently proposed demolishing and rebuilding two sports stadia at a cost of AUD$2.5bn, although these grounds are never full to capacity. It also wants to move the iconic Powerhouse Museum to the suburbs, at a cost of AUD$1.5bn, turning over the current site to property developers.

The Sydney Modern plans are now in the hands of the minister for planning, Anthony Roberts, who is expected to approve everything without an independent inquiry, even though there were no fewer than 178 submissions opposing the project. A tentative completion date has been set for 2021.

Nobody has spoken about what the AGNSW intends to display in the new building, which is a worrying oversight, because the gallery’s exhibition programme has been deteriorating.

Over the past five years, the AGNSW has initiated only one show (Pop to Popism, in 2014) that required substantial loans from public and private sources. Almost every other exhibition has been borrowed from a single institution or drawn from the permanent collection. Many shows do without catalogues. This year, the annual Archibald Prize for portraiture, a local institution, has been extended for a month, because it is the only exhibition guaranteed to draw a crowd.

Unless the AGNSW begins to focus more thoroughly on exhibitions, there is every reason to believe that Sydney Modern will be a gigantic and costly flop. Michael Brand need only look to the AGNSW’s great rival, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, to see the dangers of relying on a trophy building as opposed to a determined focus on shows and public programmes.

Melbourne learned the hard way that a new building is no guarantee of success after opening a hugely expensive second branch in 2002. Eventually, the NGV had to close each building for one day a week to make ends meet. Recovery began under the directorship of Tony Ellwood, who started in Melbourne just two months after Brand took over the helm in Sydney. The gallery is once again open all week, and enjoying record attendances.

The inaugural NGV Triennial of international contemporary art has just concluded, having attracted 1.2 million visitors. On the back of such successes, the gallery has maintained a stream of retrospectives and historical shows featuring Australian artists. The latest is Colony, the country’s largest and most ambitious survey of art of the colonial period, seen from the perspective of the settlers and the first inhabitants.

The AGNSW, in its current mindset, would not be capable of organising such an ambitious exhibition nor publishing a massive, scholarly catalogue. A top-heavy executive team is focused solely on the dream of Sydney Modern, which will magically “double” visitor numbers.

Is the AGNSW thinking about how to ensure that viewers will keep returning after the novelty of a new building has worn off? One sees the dangerous level of fantasy that has engulfed the project in a press release published by the gallery after the government finally coughed up the funds. Oblivious to the deficiencies of the collection and the exhibition programme, it crowed that the grant would transform the AGNSW “into one of the world’s greatest art museums”.

• John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and film critic for the Australian Financial Review

CORRECTION: This article was amended on 7 June to remove a mention of deteriorating visitor figures. According to the AGNSW, in 2016-17 the gallery’s overall visitation was 1,591,355. This was an increase of 23.7% year on year and the strongest visitation to the Gallery’s Domain site in recorded history, a spokeswoman for the museum says.