For Art Lovers, Sydney Modern Project Is Reason Enough to Visit Australia

A major expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales will showcase Aboriginal art while also making use of extraordinary outdoor space.

For Art Lovers, Sydney Modern Project Is Reason Enough to Visit Australia

Aboriginal artist Kaylene Whiskey’s ‘Dolly visits Indulkana’ is projected onto the sails of Sydney Opera House as part of ‘Badu Gili: Wonder Women.’

Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images for Art Gallery of NSW

Traveling to Sydney may seem unimaginable right now (with Australia’s borders still closed until who knows when), but the city is giving us reason to bookmark it for 2022.

Yes, the coastal Australian city has great beaches, surf spots, and restaurants, but it also has a dynamic art scene that’s about to get even better with the expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, one of Australia’s leading art museums. Better still: It’s not virtual! The Sydney Modern Project, a contemporary stand-alone building designed by Pritzker prize–winning Japanese architects SANAA, will be a new beacon of art with collections dedicated to Aboriginal and 21st-century works.

In contrast to the existing 19th-century neoclassical Art Gallery building, the new structure will be made almost entirely from glass—a smart design decision, given that the site borders the Royal Botanic Garden (near the iconic Opera House) with uninterrupted views of the harbor. The new space will almost double the gallery’s existing size and include an underground industrial art space created from a decommissioned World War II naval oil tank, where large artworks and installations will have ample room for display.

As a new construction in a very different (midpandemic) world, where people are starting to care more and more about sustainable practices, the architects have made sure the project is kinder to the Earth. The building, topped with solar panels and green roofs, has been awarded a six-star Green Star Rating by the Green Building Council—the highest environmental standard for any public museum in the country. Outdoor public spaces make up 80 percent of the site, and will be open around the clock to the public, so anyone can enjoy the art garden, rooftop “art terraces,” and courtyards with endemic flora. Who doesn’t love an outdoor art space these days?

While the Sydney Modern Project is certainly an exciting, shiny new addition, the history of the land the building sits on hasn’t been forgotten. Acknowledging the land’s original custodians, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the gallery will have a dedicated space to showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. It will also aim to serve as a center for the collection while providing students education in the arts.


The atrium of the Sydney Modern Project, rendered here, will be full of light and look out onto the harbor.

Image produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018

Aesthetes needn’t wait two years while the new building slowly unfolds to get their fix. The gallery celebrates its 150th anniversary with a host of installations, including a show with 39 Australian emerging and established artists and a festival that has four new works by women artists showcasing modern perspectives on Matisse’s imaginings of the Pacific.

The city kicked off celebrations this week with a colorful art show featuring six female Aboriginal artists (with pieces on display in the gallery’s permanent collection), whose work was projected onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Badu Gili 2021: Wonder Women, curated by Coby Edgar, the Art Gallery’s curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, weaves together important stories of everyday Aboriginal life as well as the bushfires that devastated the country last year.

It’s the first all-female lineup for the annual Badu Gili festival of First Nations culture and will continue to illuminate the sails of the opera house for six minutes every hour, every evening, until the Sydney Modern is completed. Don’t worry, non-Sydneysiders: You too can view the show below.

Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.
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