Horizon extended for art's sake
Wood for the trees … Gulumbu Yunupingu work at the MCA.
The Museum of Contemporary Art's start in life was a shaky one - rather like a frail craft taxiing down a runway, beset by strong cross winds. Why? We need to go back some decades - 1961 to be precise - when Dr John Power, who had spent much of his life in Paris, bequeathed a staggering amount of money in shares to the University of Sydney, to advance the cause of contemporary art here.
Enter the bureaucrats and the idea of a grand contemporary museum with a substantial collection faded to a mirage.
The first curator of the Power Gallery's collection, Elwyn Lynn, struggled manfully to buy international and local works, which occasionally saw the light of day in a backwater space of the university warren. Like an iceberg, the bulk of the works sat below the surface of public visibility.
Then lo and behold a vacant building, the former home of the Maritime Services Board at Circular Quay beckoned. This art deco monolith was ideal, but needed large sums spent on it. The MCA opened its doors in November 1991 in the middle of a recession and its first directors, Leon Paroissien and Bernice Murphy, who were adventurous and committed, were consumed by the task ahead.
Then, in 1999, the current director Elizabeth Ann McGregor was offered the job. Slowly but surely, as Sydney engaged with the fast-flowing currents of the international art world, the MCA stabilised and grew in popularity. In March this year, the elegant modernist extension opened its doors to a rapturous audience.
This is one ''cool'' museum, where burnished concrete floors, generous white spaces and floor-to-ceiling glass windows focus our attention on the artworks, not the architect. One doesn't need to be enamoured of contemporary art to feel the pulse beginning to race.
The viewer glides past works that glitter, flicker, murmur or just stay perfectly still. There is a thrilling mix of local artists (Louise Hearman, Lindy Lee, Shaun Gladwell, Robert Owen and others), and a substantial collection of bark paintings (Gulumbu Yunupingu), video works and international luminaries. One surprise is a canvas by Chilean-born painter Juan Davila, whose work Stupid as a Painter caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in 1981.
The Australian Federal Police Vice Squad wanted to confiscate the work, which was then rescued by the Power Collection. No-one is raising an eyebrow now.