As the fabulous mirage of Sydney Modern stands on the edge of the Botanic Garden, the Art Gallery of New South Wales revealed last week what we might see when the building opens, which is expected to take place before Christmas. The gallery has announced that it has commissioned nine new works from Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Karla Dickens, Simryn Gill, Jonathan Jones, Yayoi Kusama, Richard Lewer, Lee Mingwei, Lisa Reihana and Francis Upritchard.
It’s a “multi-million dollar” project, but in its usual reluctant way, AGNSW has refused to reveal the true cost. Presumably, we’re meant to be impressed by big spending, but not bothered by overspending. As these commissions have not yet been unveiled, it is impossible to pass judgment on them, but the announcement itself raises some questions.
First, why have art museums developed such a taste for commissioning, when the age-old method is to acquire pre-existing works? After commissioning a work, how much control does the gallery have over the final product? If the result is disappointing, can he refuse to accept the piece, or ask the artist to redo it?
With this frenzy of commissions, it seems that the gallery is no longer content to reflect the evolving nature of contemporary art. Instead, he wants to exert a stronger influence on artists and the genre of art deemed important.
In 2019, the Art Gallery of NSW commissioned a 10 by 3 meter work from Takashi Murakami. Supernatural Japan: dizzying after staring at the empty world too intently, I found myself trapped in the realm of ghosts and lurking monsters was another “multi-million dollar” purchase. As usual, the actual price was not disclosed, although it was rumored to be over $4 million. Murakami, which employs hundreds of assistants, is one of the successful ‘brands’ of contemporary art, and the painting is the kind of bulky, superficial product one would expect from an art factory. .
The work is a mix of borrowed images that relies on scale itself to make an impact and justify its price. Having commissioned the image, AGNSW was pretty much obligated to take whatever the artist produced. It would have been much easier to acquire a work by Murakami at a trade show or auction. It’s hard to believe that there are economic benefits to ordering a part from scratch.
The National Gallery of Australia was even more controversial when commissioning the stainless steel sculpture Ouroboros by Lindy Lee, at an expected cost of $14 million. It is the highest price paid for a work of art by an Australian museum. I’ve listened to all the arguments about the cost of casting, landscaping, lights and plumbing, but I still don’t see how that’s $14 million, especially when you find that in 2018 the Art Gallery of South Australia acquired a similar sculpture by Lindy Lee, star lifefor $550,000.
The magnitude of this commission propels Lee into a new dimension as an artist. It’s a massive endorsement when the NGA is willing to pay such a sum for a permanent installation. Lee’s status, his awards and his collection will be supercharged by this move. The same is true, more or less (Kusama, like Murakami, is a “brand”) for the nine artists singled out by AGNSW.