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New Asian galleries, Art Gallery of New South Wales. A new light on Asian Art


Edmund Capon, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales

The additional 720 square metres gives a central space dedicated to temporary exhibitions as well as providing more space for the permanent collection. So wide and diverse is the culture of Asia, that the imperative was a flexible space to present a challenging range of temporary exhibitions of Asian art - contemporary and traditional. This has been achieved, and the galleries respond to all the possibilities of exhibiting - from stone sculptures seen in filtered sunlight, to fragile silks requiring soft light and shadows. Clear lines, flexible spaces and variable light ensure that all types of art can be shown to their best advantage.

As well as the new Asian galleries, this major building project includes alterations to the original Asian gallery, a temporary exhibition space - the Rudy Komon gallery - above the Art Gallery entrance foyer, with views of the ornately carved Vernon arches, new conservation studios, a café, a restaurant and dedicated function area with spectacular harbour views, and refurbishment of the administration area.

The New South Wales State Government provided grants of $16 million for the Art Gallery of New South Wales to undertake this major building project.

New Asian galleries

The pavilion housing the new Asian galleries is a floating white glass and steel cube, pivoted with modern stainless steel lotus flowers. Cantilevered on top of the original Asian gallery, when lit at night it glows softly like a paper lantern over Sydney Harbour.

"The first thing that came to my mind when I was thinking about the building was a lantern, something consistent with a number of Asian cultures," says Sydney architect Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker.

"The simple pavilion is a consistent idea through a number of Asian cultures, so too is the idea of a pavilion on a platform," says Richard Johnson, who was involved in the design of such buildings as the Australian Embassies in Beijing and Tokyo, the Museum of Sydney, and who is currently working in collaboration with Joern Utzon on the renovation of the Sydney Opera House.

"The idea," says Anne Flanagan, the Art Gallery's General Manager of Building and Exhibitions, "was to design an extension that would be visible from the Gallery's main foyer and respect the ensemble of existing buildings." The original part of the Art Gallery, Walter Liberty Vernon's classically inspired sandstone structure, was constructed around the turn of the 20th century, while Andrew Andersons' additional concrete and glass wings were opened in 1972 and in 1988.

It was important to Edmund Capon that the new Asian galleries "subtly add another element" to what was already there, something "symbolic of the collection and having some Asian sensibilities."

"The heart, soul and purpose of an art museum such as ours reside in three crucial resources: a collection, a building and a mind," said Edmund Capon. "So far as our Asian interests are concerned we have developed and continue to develop a collection of the arts of Asia that is wide-ranging as it must be but with certain distinctive strengths; we have the resources of knowledge and scholarship in the largest Asian art department of any museum or gallery in this country; and now we have a building which echoes and fulfils our ambitions."

From the 19th century, the Asian art collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales had developed from gifts and bequests. It was not until Edmund Capon was appointed Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1979 that an Asian art department was set up, with Jackie Menzies as Head Curator. In these two decades or more the Gallery has vigorously expanded its collections, seeking out works of art that exemplify some of the great and defining traditions of the arts of Asia. Highlights of the Gallery's collection now include a rich panorama of Chinese ceramics and porcelains, a great variety of Ming, Qing and modern Chinese paintings, Japanese gold-ground screens, Buddhist arts, sensuous Indian sculptures and the patterns of Southeast Asian textiles.

The Gallery's collections have been enriched through generous gifts and bequests of superb quality from several key collectors. Edmund Capon says, "Our Asian collections have, possibly more than any other aspect of the Gallery's collections, been defined by individuals. The interests of these and other donors range across a broad spectrum from Indian sculptures and Indonesian textiles to Chinese celadons, Japanese prints and Thai Buddhas."

THE EXHIBITIONS - Permanent and Changing
In the upper level, the permanent collections will be concentrated in the outer galleries, organised in easily comprehensible sections. The main section is Faiths of Asia. Faiths of Asia is a result of the public response to the 2002 exhibition Buddha: Radiant Awakening. "When I saw the enthusiastic response to Buddha: Radiant Awakening, I realised our audience want to know more about religion in Asia, so thought we should do a pan-Asian exhibition about Faiths," says Jackie Menzies. "Currently Faiths of Asia is essentially Buddhism and Hinduism, reflecting the strengths of the Gallery's collection. However, the collection is expanding to display the art of more faiths, and as we acquire more works the displays will achieve more depth and balance".

Other categories of display include the textiles of South East Asia, and a 13 metre long case crammed with ceramics the Chinese exported to South East Asia and Europe. Pieces in this cabinet range in date from the 9th to 19th century and include Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics produced for patrons in the Philippines (as grave goods) Indonesia (as heirloom pieces), Japan (the tea ceremony) and the West (interior decoration).

The soaring central space in the new galleries will see a changing exhibitions programme. The flexibility of this space enables exhibitions of the widest scope - ranging from some of the most challenging contemporary Asian art being made, to the display of some of the most intimate and delicate paintings on silk.

Each visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Asian galleries will reveal a new dimension to the breadth of Asian art.

On view:Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney,
Australia, 2000
Telephone:61 2 9225 1744 or Nationwide Toll Free 1800 679 278
Hours:10am to 5pm 7 days a week
(closed Christmas Day and Easter Friday)
Art After Hours every Wednesday until 9pm
Admission:Free of Charge
Admission charges may apply to some exhibitions
Media Information and Interviews:Virginia Lovett, Press Office
Telephone 61 2 9225 1791 or 0417 662 749
Images available on request