Earlier this year Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) celebrated its 10th anniversary with an exhibition called Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything. Unlike other exhibitions, there was no one focus – the sprawling, eclectic collection was the attraction itself.
“What was really special about Sugar Spin was it attracted over 600,000 people,” says Tarragh Cunningham, an assistant director at GOMA. “Almost all the art was from our existing collection, along with some specially commissioned work. It’s rare to have a collection strong enough to attract that kind of crowd, both locally and from overseas.”
Some of the works were intentionally arresting, like Carsten Höller’s giant “Left/Right Slide”, which sent visitors spiralling from the top floor of GOMA to the bottom level; or Nervescape V 2016 by Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter), who installed a lurid, colourful furry wall running down the spine of the gallery.
Cunningham says such bold, interactive works were a conscious inclusion to lure all-comers to the art gallery experience. “You could come and see Sugar Spin as a big party,” she says, “but then a few levels up, we had these beautiful tiny Japanese mourning broaches made of hair. Then Lee Mingwei’s work, Writing the unspoken, where visitors were encouraged to write letters to people who may not be around anymore. We wanted to show not everything is sugary. There’s also a dark side to celebration and ritual.”
GOMA recently launched another insight into a ritualistic pastime, though this one decidedly skewed towards popular culture. Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe is the first major Marvel exhibition in Australia – as well as the largest ever presented in an art gallery, anywhere in the world – and features more than 500 artworks from the Marvel archives and private collections, showcasing the transition of the universe’s iconic characters from comic book to screen.
Cunningham says the Marvel exhibition is part of the gallery’s larger embrace of popular culture as art. “We’re one of the only art museums with a dedicated cinema facility,” she says. “We have a long history of including film in our exhibitions, including our David Lynch exhibition in 2015.” While some might see Hollywood as having no place in a Brisbane art gallery, Cunningham says ties are closer than expected.
“The film industry on the Gold Coast is huge,” she says. “We wanted to highlight the work we’ve been doing for a long time in film, as well as make a huge blockbuster exhibition to attract new people to the gallery.” GOMA’s confidence about presenting “huge blockbuster exhibitions” can be partly attributed to the gallery’s long-standing focus on art from the Asia-Pacific region – a relationship forged decades ago thanks to a partnership with the Queensland Art Gallery (GOMA’s neighbour and partner).
“We’ve been working in the Asia-Pacific since the early ’90s,” says Cunningham. “Because of that, we have strong relationships with a lot of emerging and established artists there. Some artists would be totally out of our price range now, but because we worked with them as emerging artists we still have that connection and can show their art. That’s because when the Queensland Art Gallery first started, they had the foresight to look to Asia rather than America or Europe – and that’s where most of the most exciting art is now coming from.”
This collection lies at the core of GOMA – evidenced by its incredibly popular Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT), which takes over the gallery every three years. Although the next APT isn’t until 2019, Cunningham says the gallery is already making plans. “Our APT exhibitions are what allows us to take the most risks and be the most creative,” says Cunningham. “They’re completely unique to GOMA.”
GOMA also encourages kids to get involved in the gallery – not as an afterthought but as a focus. “We work closely with the artists on our kids programs,” Cunningham says. “Our current one, Kate Beynon’s Friendly Beasts, is a look at Western and Eastern comic books, as well as lots of drawing and dancing – it’s a whole immersive environment where kids can make masks and perform music.” There are similar interactive options at the Marvel exhibition, including seven different spaces where people can do their own comic book drawing, use green screens, and include themselves in the experience.
Outside of standalone exhibitions, GOMA encourages participation both inside and out. To bookend GOMA's tenth year of operation, a major light installation will transform the facade of GOMA from early December. The artwork, by internationally renowned artist James Turrell, will become a permanent feature following the birthday celebrations.
Inside on Friday night's, GOMA's Up Late sessions regularly turn the gallery into a music venue, drawing local, national and international musicians of all stripes to perform, often making thematic links to a current exhibition. The shows have proven successful in drawing yet another demographic to the building. “Forty per cent of our visitors are aged under 24,” says Cunningham. “We have to be unique and exciting to cater to a young audience – and to keep up with them.”
In Cunningham’s opinion the gallery’s art isn’t restricted to music and visuals. “Do you know about our restaurant? I think it’s one of the best hidden secrets about GOMA,” she says. “We have this two-hatted restaurant people come specifically to the gallery for. You could come to a paid exhibition or just the free stuff, walk around the grounds on the river and then stay and have a meal.”
Locals might have become familiar with GOMA looming on the South Brisbane river bank since it was first constructed in 2006, but Cunningham thinks the gallery’s success remains in part due to its ability to constantly engage and provoke. “Risk taking is in Brisbane’s DNA,” says Cunningham. “It’s a city with a lot of energy. We want to surprise everyone who comes here.”