The Joni Mitchell lyrics “don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone” ran on an endless loop through my mind as I joined 100-odd visitors eagerly queueing outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) yesterday morning, waiting for the moment the gallery would finally reopen after 70 days.

AGNSW director Michael Brand, along with parliamentary secretary to the Premier Gabrielle Upton and gallery staff personally greeted people as the doors opened following easing of restrictions on NSW museums, galleries and libraries.

Having been denied the experience for so long, it was magical to stand before a work of art and absorb its presence and to be in the company of others, also quietly admiring the works. Even the usually inscrutable security guards were beaming. “It’s great to have people back and hear voices in here. Otherwise it’s like a haunted house,” one said.

Under new government regulations from June 1, museums, galleries and libraries are required to enforce physical distancing of 1.5 metres. Handrails were regularly wiped down, signs reminded people to keep their distance, and hand sanitiser has been strategically placed around the gallery. But the measures don’t seem to have the cumulative effect of feeling restrictive. If anything, having some more space to appreciate works is a welcome change.

The AGNSW is allowed 2096 visitors at once and the gallery has opted for a timed ticketing system (there were around 625 visitors by mid-afternoon on day one). Tickets are free and names and addresses are taken in case visitors need to be contacted later. While the gallery shop and cafe have re-opened, the restaurant, Chiswick, remains closed.

And there’s plenty to see. The gallery has extended the dates for Brook Andrew’s Biennale of Sydney exhibition until September 27, which you can also see at Artspace and Campbelltown Arts Centre now, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and Cockatoo Island from June 16.

Other free exhibitions include the newly opened Brand-curated Some Mysterious Process, which explores the history of the gallery’s art collection and features highlights of the AGNSW’s international contemporary collection including works by David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeois. The photographic exhibition, Shadow catchers, and Under the stars are also on.

Brand is happy to confirm the perennially popular Archibald Prize exhibition will return (albeit at a later and yet-to-be-confirmed date). “Artists drop off around 2000 works at the back door, and the trustees have to judge it. The logistics in normal times are extraordinary, but with physical distancing, it’s challenging,” he says. “But it will be done, because everyone is very excited.”

The fate of the gallery’s previously announced Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces From the Centre Pompidou, the blockbuster summer series of 100 works by the French master, is less certain given restrictions on international travel. Meanwhile the construction of the gallery’s ambitious building expansion, Sydney Modern, is well underway next door.

MCA director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor is looking forward to reopening on June 16, but cautions it will run at limited capacity. “We’re not able to reopen the whole building because we can only use staff on Jobkeeper. We can’t afford to take back staff who weren’t eligible, so we’re only partially reopening, with the Biennale of Sydney. We’ve also made the very difficult decision not to open on Mondays, which is heartbreaking.”

The MCA operates on a mixed funding model in which much of its revenue comes from hiring out its rooftop function spaces and harbourside hall – a revenue stream severely affected of late. “It’s a $4-million business and even when we can reopen, the numbers are so restrictive we’re not going to get back to [capacity] in a hurry. So it’s been quite stressful for us,” she says.

The MCA has decided against timed tickets. “We want to remove all barriers to access, [but] if it looks like it’s getting busy we can issue tickets on the spot to make sure we don’t exceed numbers,” Macgregor says.

While the MCA has postponed its upcoming major international summer show by contemporary American artist Doug Aitken, Macgregor is excited to turn her mind to Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, which she has curated, opening later this year. The major survey of the influential Chinese-Australian artist is very timely Macgregor says. “Lindy is an artist very concerned about living between cultures. Art gets us to think about and look at the world differently – it fires the imagination. And I think we’ve all been very introspective while we’ve been in isolation. This will help us reconnect with the world.”

The AGNSW is now open. Find out more info here. All exhibitions are currently free, and timed-entry tickets are available in advance. Walk-ins allowed if space permits. The MCA reopens on June 16. More info here.