‘A great gift’: Sydney’s non-profit Artspace reopens after 3-year renovation

“Artspace is located in Woolloomooloo, at a really interesting intersection of different social, cultural and economic points,” says Alexie Glass-Kantor, Artspace’s executive director.

Australian aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones, whose solo exhibition will be among the first at the renovated Artspace in Sydney. Photo: Mark Pokorny
One of Jonathan Jones’ pieces, Untitled (emu eggs). Photo: Jonathan Jones

The art centre is sandwiched between one of the last pockets of social housing in Sydney and Woolloomooloo Wharf – where actor Russell Crowe lives and where some of the most expensive property in the city is to be found.

“Artspace supports the making of contemporary art, but we’re also always advocating for education and social inclusion, so it’s great to have the community involved in the reopening,” Glass-Kantor says.

Alexie Glass-Kantor, Artspace’s executive director. Photo: Zan Wimberley

While she remains committed to Artspace’s immediate community, she has also raised its profile across Asia since she took the reins in 2013.

Since 2015, she has curated the large-scale installations that tower over gallery booths at the Art Basel Hong Kong art fair in a section called Encounters.

In 2016, Artspace partnered with the University of New South Wales to launch the International Visiting Curators Programme, which has brought multiple curators from Asia to Sydney, including Christina Li, who curated Hong Kong’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019; Yung Ma, who has worked at Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture; and Inti Guerrero, who was previously based in Hong Kong and is now co-curating the 2024 Biennale of Sydney with Cosmin Costinas, the former director of Hong Kong art space Para Site.
Christina Li, curator of Hong Kong’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Photo: Christina Li

Artspace has also co-curated exhibitions around Asia, among them several projects at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh and UN/Learning Australia at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2021, which marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and South Korea.

For Glass-Kantor, this work in the broader Asia-Pacific region is a natural extension of Artspace’s activities in Australia.

Artspace was founded in Sydney in 1983 by artists who wanted the freedom to experiment outside established museums or commercial galleries.

There are people who haven’t been born yet who will live and work here

Alexie Glass-Kantor on the long-term impact of Artspace
Glass-Kantor compares it to Hong Kong’s Para Site or Tai Kwun Contemporary: like those organisations, Artspace does not collect art but supports living artists through curating and hosting exhibitions, publishing books, organising talks and conferences and more.

Artspace’s renovated building provides more space for artists to make and exhibit their work. It is in The Gunnery, a three-storey heritage building historically used as a printing press and naval training centre.

Following its renovation, Artspace will occupy all three floors of the building for the first time. This will give it larger galleries; a new space for performances and public programmes; room for Artspace’s archive, which for the first time will be open to the public; and three new artist studios, increasing the number of studios from seven to 10.

One of the galleries at the renovated Artspace in Sydney. Photo: Katherine Lu

The studios are leased to artists rent-free for a year.

The state government of New South Wales funded the renovation and has granted Artspace a 35-year lease for The Gunnery.

“There are people who haven’t been born yet who will live and work here. Museums feel very confident of their endurance, but non-profits like Artspace don’t normally have that comfort. It’s a great gift,” Glass-Kantor says.

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Artspace’s operations are funded through a mixture of state and federal government financing, as well as through private philanthropy.

Glass-Kantor is unusual in that her roles at Artspace and Art Basel mean she works at both the non-profit and commercial ends of the art world.

“I don’t feel any conflict because I don’t have to sell the work at Art Basel,” she says, adding that responsibility lies with the commercial galleries who represent the artists participating in Encounters.

One of the artist studios at Artspace. Photo: Katherine Lu

“I’m broad-minded about the context in which I work. It can be a biennial, it can be a museum, it can be an art fair, it can be online. As a curator, I’m interested in learning from artists and audiences wherever they are.”

Her work in the commercial sector also helps to fund Artspace projects.

“With Art Basel Hong Kong, I’m seconded through Artspace,” Glass-Kantor says. This means that the fee for the collaboration goes to Artspace, rather than to her personally.

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“It funds the team’s travel to develop relationships abroad and build capacity,” she says.

International relationships are key to Artspace’s upcoming programmes: it is developing exhibitions or projects with four institutions or organisations in Asia. Later this year, Artspace will exhibit a new installation by a leading artist from mainland China.

Glass-Kantor stresses that she is just one of a number of Australian curators building relationships across the region.

She cites as other examples Russell Storer, who held a number of senior positions at the National Gallery Singapore between 2014 and 2022; Melissa Chiu, who is now the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington but began her career by establishing the 4A Center for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney; and Suhanya Raffel, director of M+ in Hong Kong.

“Suhanya’s first job was actually at Artspace,” Glass-Kantor says.

“I’m not an island. Australian curators and institutions have had relationships with institutions in Asia for generations. It’s important we continue them.”

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