As well as a good number of sandy beaches, ocean pools and bars, Sydney boasts an impressive collection of contemporary art venues. From imposing national institutions to smaller, independent galleries showcasing the best of local and international talent, the city caters to every cultural appetite.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Museum, Bridge, Opera House, Store, Architectural Landmark
Located in the heart of Sydney Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is one of the top art venues in Sydney. Grand by design, it occupies a spectacular waterside Art Deco building that was once the headquarters of the Maritime Services Board. Its interior by contrast is unassumingly simple – with light, airy and modern gallery space and plenty of room to walk around. As Juan Davila, a Chilean-Australian artist and writer whose work is featured in the gallery, says, “I love MCA as it has always put the artist first.” Illustrator Bronte Rose admits that she gets inspired every time she visits. “The exhibitions are always ‘next level’, and the Artbar events (the MCA’s artist-driven evenings of art, music and performance) are beyond exciting.” General admission to the museum is free except for the major summer exhibition, the Sydney International Art Series. The MCA’s rooftop café is a must-visit for spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
This behemoth of a gallery attracts more than 1 million art lovers every year and is Sydney’s most revered art space. Situated within the luscious parklands of The Domain, one of the largest green spaces in the city, it comprises five sprawling floors of international and Australian art, including a gallery exhibiting works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The museum also hosts regular contemporary exhibitions. Sydney-based Chilean abstract painter María José Benvenuto is an avid fan of the gallery: “This space is amazing. There is always some exciting exhibition happening, and I also love the permanent collection with excellent paintings representing Australian art history.” Wednesday evenings are reserved for Art After Hours when the museum is open for workshops, talks and screenings until 10pm. General admission is free except for some temporary exhibitions.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Sydney artists used the historic Gunnery Building as a squat, but now the multistorey, modernised warehouse in Woolloomooloo is a leading international residency-based contemporary art centre. Each year, Artspace presents several exhibitions of modern art, as well as many talks, symposiums and open studio events. It is a daring but small art gallery and an absolute must-visit for all true art fanatics. A bonus is Harry’s Café de Wheels, an iconic pie and hotdog shop sitting right across the street. Admission is free.
White Rabbit Gallery houses one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese art and a teahouse | Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery
Located just a short walk from Central and Redfern stations in a building that was once a Rolls-Royce showroom, the White Rabbit Gallery is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese art. Opened in 2009 by Australian philanthropist Judith Neilson, it features four floors of gallery space and a teahouse that serves up a simple menu of home-made dumplings and biscuits. Sydney-based artist Melanie Vugich, who creates beautiful still-life paintings, tries to see every new show hosted by the gallery. “This is such a wonderful space, and it’s exciting to see large-scale works and imagine the logistics of putting them together and transporting them from China. It’s a great reminder that art always finds a way.” Joel Adler, whose 5.5-tonne steel sculpture Viewfinder was called ‘the most Instagrammed artwork’, is a fan, too: “Every time I visit the gallery, my mind gets blown!” Admission is free.
Firstdraft is one of Australia’s oldest, artist-run initiatives, and a place to see new and exciting art from emerging local artists. Although small and modest in size, this is a favourite local place to spot new artists for Claire Visitserngtrakul, associate director of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. She calls it “the incubator to some of Australia’s best artists, writers, curators and leading cultural workers”. The gallery hosts three to four experimental exhibitions per month. Every August, it hosts one of the most anticipated art events in town – its annual fundraising auction. “You can get works by emerging and established artists for a fraction of their commercial gallery price,” says Visitserngtrakul. Admission is free.
Ken Done and the artwork he creates are the embodiment of a true Australian – bold, sunny and a great laugh. The artist has had an amazing career – from working with Andy Warhol and painting a BMW Artcar to creating a series of works for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. His artworks are also heavily featured on handbags, mugs and doona (duvet) covers all over Australia and fall under the ‘Done Design’ brand. The gallery is located in The Rocks, a stone’s throw from the bustling Sydney Harbour. Sydney-based illustrator and frequent visitor Grace Choi says she loves visiting the gallery for its lively atmosphere. “There is so much happiness, colour and energy in his artworks. I don’t think anyone can translate the beauty of Sydney like Ken Done – he sees the beauty in everything,” she says. Admission is free.
AIRspace Projects holds monthly exhibitions that showcase the talent of new and established local, national and international artists | Courtesy of AIRspace Projects
Founded in 2014 by friends Sally Clarke and Brenda Factor, AIRspace Projects is a non-profit artist-run initiative. Originally intended as a studio space, the run-down warehouse in Marrickville has since been transformed into one of Sydney’s coolest art venues. Claire Visitserngtrakul explains how the gallery creates a sense of community by “daring to cross the cultural, age and disciplinary barriers and show a programme of exciting and challenging contemporary art”. The monthly exhibitions open on Fridays and show emerging and established local, national and international artists. Admission is free.
Carriageworks is the largest and most significant contemporary multi-art centre in Australia. Housed in the old Eveleigh Railway Yards, it has a 19th-century industrial feel, and many of the heritage iron and brick details have been left exposed. The art space hosts a diverse range of cultural events, including large-scale art installations, one-room exhibitions, cultural festivals, talks and film screenings. It also plays host to an amazingly popular organic farmer’s market every Saturday.
In a bid to promote a cultural dialogue between Australia and continental Asia, the 4A Centre prides itself in showcasing the best of both worlds. This two-storey gallery space in Chinatown is the perfect venue for hosting small-scale video, installation, sculpture and painting exhibitions, talks and lectures, as well as regular Asian film screenings. Admission is free.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery has discovered some of Australia’s most influential contemporary artists since opening its doors in 1982 | Courtesy of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery has a long history of promoting contemporary artists, doing so since 1982 when it first opened. Tucked away on a small street in the central neighbourhood of Paddington, this intimate, private gallery hosts exciting and inclusive new art shows every three weeks. It has helped shape the careers of some of Australia’s most influential contemporary artists, including Del Kathryn Barton and Patricia Piccinini. There is something for everyone here, and its opening nights are always packed with Sydney’s colourful art crowd. Admission is free.
Right in the heart of Redfern, this repurposed car garage is not a typical art gallery, but a multipurpose creative hub and lively community space. The gallery runs daily events, from visual arts exhibitions, concerts, theatre performances and workshops to drinks in the cosy rooftop garden. The downstairs area, with its comfortable sofas, is a popular (and free) co-working space for creative people.