While the Art Gallery of New South Wales has seen some remarkable highlights in 2019-20, it has also faced challenges it could never have anticipated a year ago from the successive impacts of drought, bushfires and COVID-19 on its community and on its business. These challenges required the Gallery and its Board of Trustees to contend with conditions that sometimes changed daily, and continues to do so.
Following its 10-week closure starting on March 23, the Gallery responded quickly to the pandemic to minimise its financial impact while continuing to deliver rich and diverse experiences for audiences. Despite the pandemic, the Gallery maintained a strong overall financial position in 2019-20.
During the financial year the Gallery welcomed just over one million visitors to the Domain site, Brett Whiteley Studio and touring exhibitions, despite visitation being impacted by the Gallery’s temporary closure, and the ongoing effects of COVID-19 after it reopened on June 1. This compares with visitation of 1.5 million in 2018-2019.
Director Michael Brand said his focus for the year was to ensure the Gallery survived COVID-19, could then quickly revive, and thereafter, thrive in the future.
“We are in a privileged position having the support of our state government and many private donors as well as sponsors who have continued to support us and ensure our institutional health – which very unfortunately is not the case for many of our international art museum colleagues and other arts organisations here in Australia.
“As 2020 comes to a close, we’re in our revival phase. I’m very pleased our audiences are enthusiastically returning to the Gallery to enjoy both our collection and ticketed exhibitions in particular the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2020 and the associated Archie Plus project, as well as our Streeton exhibition, also running throughout the summer,” Brand said.
Construction of the Sydney Modern Project commenced in late 2019 after Richard Crookes Constructions was appointed as the building contractor. Works progressed on schedule throughout the year with the SANAA-designed building currently taking shape on time and within budget. The Gallery remains deeply appreciative of the support of the New South Wales Government, which has invested $244 million, and the project’s many visionary and generous donors who committed more than $100 million for the Capital Campaign.
Shortly after the Gallery closed on March 23 it was one of the first museums around the world to present an extended virtual offering to maintain and grow meaningful and optimistic connections between artists and audiences. On April 4 the Gallery launched Together In Art, an award-nominated online social project, opening the Gallery to the world and affirming the power of art to connect people in difficult times.
A key goal of the project was to generate extra paid work for Australian artists whose employment had been badly affected by the pandemic. The Gallery commissioned a total of 50 Australian artists to produce new works, performances, virtual workshops and tours, which during the Gallery’s closure, attracted 86,000 online viewers.
Across the year the Gallery saw a 25% increase in YouTube subscribers and a 16% increase in Instagram followers, with its social media content attracting 74 million impressions across Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter with 1.5 million engagements. The Together In Art project also saw online visitors spend almost double their ‘dwell time’, demonstrating an appetite for longer-form content in which the voices of artists and curators are central.
The Gallery was one of the first art museums in the world to reopen on June 1, welcoming back visitors to the extended season of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN exhibition, which showcased extraordinary new works of art from around the world with a uniquely First Nations perspective. Although the exhibition program was disrupted by COVID-19 in the second half of the year, the Gallery presented three major ticketed exhibitions which were attended by 258,836 visitors.
The Gallery’s 2019-20 Sydney International Art Series exhibition, Japan Supernatural attracted 142,390 visitors, notably drawing many new young and diverse visitors to the Gallery. The exhibition was supported by a richly researched publication, an inventive film series and outstanding public programs. The Japan Supernatural audio experience, designed as ‘cinema for the ear’ with narratives in English and Japanese, was used by more than half of all ticket-holders, and the Japan Supernatural explainer video won Gold at the Australian Animation and Effects Awards.
Aligned to its strategic plan, 2019-20 saw the Gallery continue to work with communities across the state. Since April art packs have been created and delivered to families across NSW in partnership with the Asylum Seekers Centre, WEAVE and Youth and Family Connect in Woolloomooloo, and Save the Children. Art materials were supplied to provide vulnerable children with art-making activities to do while in COVID-related isolation.
In Sydney and regional New South Wales, the Djamu Indigenous art program continued to engage students. During the financial year students at Wilcannia Central School worked with the Gallery’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team and artist Badger Bates to revive a cultural tradition making and floating the first tree canoe on the Darling River – the Barka – for the first time in 70 years, an event attended by the Gallery director. The Djamu Juvenile Justice program also saw Gallery staff working to support 120 young people, and offering Juvenile Justice Centre staff with professional development opportunities.
In 2019-20 the Gallery achieved a major milestone when artist Tony Albert was appointed as the Gallery’s first Indigenous Trustee. With Mr Albert’s continued chairing of the Indigenous Advisory Group, his leadership provides a highly valued link between the Group and the Board of Trustees.
Making significant progress against its Indigenous Action Plan 2018-21, the expansion and creation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander positions at the Gallery has enhanced its ability to research, present and engage audiences with First Nations art, as well as drawing on the talents and perspectives of Indigenous arts professionals.
Director Michael Brand said against the backdrop of the year’s challenges, the Gallery’s focus is now on celebrating its 150th anniversary year in 2021 and the scheduled completion of the Sydney Modern Project in late 2022.
“Art is a beacon of hope and inspiration in times of difficulty. It brings connection when we feel most isolated. It helps us remember who we are when the world around us feels quite alien. I thank everyone who helps us to serve our very important role,” Brand said.