Architect Sam Marshall’s extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia at Circular Quay, which reopens to the public today (March 29), has an element of Dr Who’s Tardis about it. The new cubist structure, built on the northern side of the old sandstone museum, looks modest in size until you begin to climb the monumental stairway. Suddenly the space expands – left into the old galleries and up into the atrium. What used to feel like a collection of discrete spaces now has a visual flow and light openness.
The new structure is cubist in both its external form and internal detail. Finishes are plain and clean; polished concrete, white plaster, black window frames and inset fluorescent lighting subtly punctuate the space. Unusually for a gallery, but admirably for one in such a position, there are surprising views out to the harbour, created via the gaps between the cubes or cut-outs and framed by the sharp lines of the building. The new structure is joined to the old sandstone building with the main circulation staircase and lifts, both of which give views through a seamless glass transition.
The museum turns 21 this year and seems to have come of age as an art institution. The new spaces have allowed it to devote an entire floor to the MCA collection. While it has always excelled at curating and hosting temporary exhibitions, this new floor is a permanent space for the best of Australian contemporary art. The museum’s collection policy is to only buy direct from the artist or their agent – never at auction – and to only acquire work made in the last 10 years. This policy cements the MCA’s dedication to supporting artists in the best way possible – by buying their work.
In addition to Volume One: The Collection, two temporary exhibitions launch with the new building: Christian Marclay’s celebrated video installation The Clock and an international show Marking Time.
A feature of the new structure is the floor devoted to the National Centre for Creative Learning. Education is something the MCA has always taken very seriously, a commitment no better demonstrated than by devoting such prime real estate to a suite of exciting rooms that will involve not only visiting students, but connect with others remotely via revolutionary digital classroom infrastructure.
Another digital innovation is MCA Insight, a free mobile phone guide to the collection, which is available when you connect to the museum’s free wifi network. It gives information on the artists, contains tours of the work, interviews and can even find you if you are lost. You can also download it at home from iTunes.
The story of how the museum got to this point is complicated. But the fact that Marshall is the third architect involved in the building’s renovations says a lot. Architectural competitions followed each other in quick succession, each abandoned because a lack of political will constantly stood in the way of good decision-making.
Standing outside the museum, the sandstone building that became MCA in 1991 stands in stark contrast to its more modern sister. Gazing out over the water towards the Sydney Opera House, it’s sobering to think that if one stood in this same spot in the late 50s, one would have seen both buildings under construction simultaneously. One designed in the 30s but delayed by lack of commitment, one seemingly from a future not yet imagined but embroiled in controversy.
All this art can make one tired and the roof is a perfect place to sit and revive. The cafe provides day-long food and refreshments in a modern indoor space, or outdoors on a terrace with a view that no fancy restaurant in Sydney can match. This sculpture terrace will host a new commission each year, the first being a work by recent Australian Venice Biennale representative Hany Armanious. You could be forgiven for making this your first destination, but best you start with the art and work your way up.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
140 George Street, The Rocks
Enter via Circular Quay West or George Street
(02) 9245 2400
(Thurs open late until 9pm)