First published on 26 Mar 2012. Updated on 28 Mar 2012.
We can’t talk about the new Museum of Contemporary Art without first talking about the old Museum of Contemporary Art.
It’s fair to say the building had some issues: poor circulation; school groups clogging up the undersized entrance; inadequate access for visitors in wheelchairs, visitors with children and other not-so-mobile types; artworks subject to the indignity of being unloaded in the parking lot; two entrances on different levels (George Street and Circular Quay) only adding to the confusion.
Even its director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, recalls the slight twinge of disappointment she felt when she first rocked up to its front door.
“I’ll never forget when I came to Sydney for the first time, standing out on the forecourt and thinking: how bizarre that there’s a great big wall at the main entrance,” Macgregor says. “There’s no desire lines, nothing that draws you to the building.”
Even more fundamentally than all that, the public face of the building – a face more suited to the building’s former life as the administration offices of the Maritime Services Board – was at odds with the cutting-edge work on show inside.
But no longer. Two international design competitions, years of planning, months of construction and $53 million later, the MCA – and contemporary art in Australia – has been transformed forever. On Thursday the 29th of March, the MCA will be born again, boasting 50 per cent more floor space, a rooftop café and sculpture terrace, a high-tech education centre, a 114-seat lecture theatrette and forecourt.
The original sandstone building is still there. Only now it has a not-so-identical conjoined twin by its side: a giant stack of black, white and brown boxes. The more artistically inclined will suggest that the two structures are ‘in dialogue with one another’. Others will just see a jumbled-up Rubik’s Cube. Either way, it’s a striking addition to Sydney’s most desirable waterfront address. “We wanted to keep the old building but provide something next to it that says immediately that this is a contemporary building,” Macgregor says. “Hopefully people will react very differently to seeing this beautiful, very interesting, very modern looking building on the end.”
The two buildings may look like an aesthetical odd couple on the outside, but, as architect Sam Marshall explains, it’s a single unified experience once you’re indoors. “You enter the new building and come into the old building,” Marshall says, “and hopefully don’t notice the transition.”
I’m whisked through one of the new gallery levels to take a look. As promised, it’s a whole new sensation: clean, logical and open – with long vistas to entice and draw you in further. While the design of the exterior is about drawing attention, the opposite is the case for the interior. Marshall has treated the space’s “acne”: clearing away air conditioners, lighting fixtures and other blemishes getting in the way of an uncontaminated gallery experience. “The most important thing is the art,” says Marshall. “In the perfect gallery there would be no architecture visible. For most of the MCA’s exhibitions they install walls, change colours and put different surfaces in. That requires a really simple space with a really simple circulation system.”
There are windows though – Marshall says he had to resist the temptation to totally open the galleries up to the harbour views. In the end, intermittent glimpses of the outside scenery were chosen with the same curatorial care that went into selecting the art for the first wall-hang. “You’d be crazy not to use the fabulous view,” says Marshall, “but there are certain functions of a gallery you have to take into account. We made the openings smaller so that when you do see the view it’s special.”
With all that’s new on the site, Macgregor and Marshall are particularly chuffed about the new education facility. In the recent past, MCA’s education programming jostled for space with revenue-raising corporate functions and wedding receptions. Now, students will get their own dedicated digital classroom and workshop, multimedia and special needs spaces. “We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve put education centre stage in that wing,” says Macgregor. “I think it’s going to be regarded as certainly a leader in Australia, and maybe even a world leader, in terms of what we can do there.”
And, as Macgregor is pleased to point out, there’s even a new front door: a much grander, much better signposted, much more welcoming entrance that links George Street to the Quay, a contemporary take on one of the Rocks’ pedestrian laneways. It’s one of the building’s architectural masterstrokes. “It says, ‘Come in’”, says Marshall.
For Macgregor, the MCA’s leap into the 21st century comes at a personal cost: she’s back in an office with half the view she once had and elevators rumbling and dinging impudently outside. But not even that can dampen her excitement. “I spent the weekend hanging the collection,” she says, and the twinkle in her eyes and her smile say it all.
The new Museum of Contemporary Art Australia opens to the public on Thursday Mar 29 with two exciting exhibitions. Volume One: MCA Collection is a retrospective showcase of work collected in the Museum’s 20-year history, while Marking Time will see 11 artists address the passing of time and the infinite fractions thereof. The MCA is also hosting a season of performance, called Local Positioning Systems, and a range of talks and activities over its opening weekend on Sat Mar 31 and Sun Apr 1, including an all-ages Family Art Extravaganza. In addition, there will be screenings of Christian Marclay’s cinematic masterpiece ‘The Clock’ during normal Museum hours, and 24-hour screenings every Thursday, until June.
Check the brand spanking new MCA website for more.
What next for the MCA? Sydney art figures weigh in
“One thing that I would like to see the MCA fostering is the exporting of exhibitions of Australian art overseas. A large institution like the MCA has the ability to be very influential on the international stage as an ambassador for Australia – outside of Australia – in a way that is much more difficult for smaller organisations such as commercial galleries to achieve.” – Roslyn Oxley, gallery owner
“The MCA is so well positioned to be a gateway to our city's cultural core as it attracts a broad audience into an otherwise exclusive world of contemporary art. It represents the perfect mix of informed cultural content with the ability to put bums on seats. But... I think David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap said it best: ‘It's such a fine line between stupid and... uh, clever.’ [Ed: Aleks Danko’s engraved mirror artwork ‘It’s Such a Thin Line Between Clever and Stupid’ in fact features in the Volume One: MCA Collection exhibition.] I hope they turn the art volume up to 11 and rock it out from the Rocks in 2012.” – Lew Palaitis, Sydney Fringe director
“What I liked about the MCA's recent Primavera was the way that it spilled out into the streets and spaces of the surrounding area of the Rocks, responding sometimes cheekily to its local history, and that's something I'd like to see the MCA do more of: reaching out and becoming more ingrained in the local landscape.” – Michael Fitzgerald, Art & Australia
“I would love to see a dedicated space showcasing the best of what Sydney has to offer, from emerging to established. Whenever I go to a public museum the first thing I want to see is what is happening locally. It would be great to also see a dedicated area with exhibitions focused on the broad range of work by Australia's first nation people.” – Tony Albert, artist
“The MCA should continue to support and present local Australian contemporary artists, whilst also bringing the best international works to Sydney audiences to take full advantage of their newly expanded galleries.” – Lisa Havilah, Carriageworks
“Good cafe, good shop, good education – and provocative exhibitions with comprehensible description and dialogue.” – Penelope Seidler, director of Harry Seidler and Associates, board director of Biennale of Sydney