The Metamorphosis of The MCA Australia

The new MCA stands out on the west side of the Sydney Harbor.

Just as their George Street neighbors had nearly forgotten the fact that the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) was under renovation, at the start of fall the MCA finally reopened after more than one year. Bustling with street performers on a daily basis, the Sydney Harbour celebrated the reopening with a week-long series of launch events, hosting revels that continued until nightfall and included a water opera performance and fireworks show.


Along the western side of Circular Quay, the new MCA building has added an entrance facing the harbor. Visitors might immediately associate the high flight of steps before the entrance with the 97-meter steps of the Opera House on the opposite bank. In the entrance hall a mural of bright orange triangles by Helen Eager suggests to visitors that the museum’s doors are open again. Although many visitors are attracted to the bustling market nearby and tourist attractions like the Rocks, a considerable number of them choose to go to the museum for its educational programs. Since its establishment, the MCA has constantly played an essential role in supporting and promoting the development of contemporary art. According to figures from the museum, over 580,000 tourists visited MCA in 2010. It comes as no surprise, then, that public education and related programs have been emphasized as new key requirements for the institution post-redevelopment. In addition to the many staff members wearing an “Ask Me” badge, the museum has also developed “MCA Insight,” a free self-guided mobile app that provides information on whatever works the visitor finds interesting. The entire museum is blanketed with free wireless and a real-time localization system. The app also offers regular updates on the museum’s latest happenings and events.

The MCA’s unique geographical position has considerable historical significance. After the landing of the British First Fleet at the Sydney Harbour, the museum’s site became an important naval trading hub, and later a military port. In 1989, the state government of New South Wales lent the Maritime Service Board’s abandoned building to the University of Sydney for the creation of a museum. After a two-year construction period, the Museum of Contemporary Art officially opened on November 11, 1991. From the beginning, the museum has emphatically attempted to display a comprehensive survey of contemporary Australian art through their extensive collection of works. New South Wales is also the historical place of origin of the Aborigine people, and Aboriginal art is a distinctive component of the MCA’s collection.

On the art world map, Australia has been often considered the Western world’s “other,” as if it is still excluded from the mainstream. However, MCA and other art institutions have adopted a considerably optimistic stance. Following an AUD 53 million redevelopment, the museum’s total area has been extended by an additional 4,500 square meters, increasing the MCA’s former space by almost 50%, and exhibition space by 26%. The all-new venue has triggered greater ambitions for the museum, as the MCA now hopes to drive art development in the entire region by promoting local art. The re-opening of the MCA has also been highly supported by Arts NSW, the New South Wales government’s arts policy and funding body, which invited art media to visit the museum during its opening season, an extremely effective means of creating momentum for local contemporary art. Additionally, the opening season featured Christian Marclay’s Golden Lion-winning work The Clock, and there are plans to mount an Anish Kapoor solo show later in the year. The MCA has begun building a specialized platform for connecting the local and the international, continuously bringing high-standard international contemporary art exhibitions to Australia. Obviously, this is the country’s current cultural strategy: to assimilate foreign arts and culture, to search for breakthroughs for local art, and to establish a simultaneous cultural identity in preparation for the future rise of contemporary Australian art.


The renovation project posed a huge challenge to the architect, as the new hub needed to use the former parking lot space on the north side, and connect with the original Maritime Service Board building. The relationship with the surrounding environment, as well as with adjacent Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, also had to be taken into account— Sydney does not need a Guggenheim Bilbao, meaning he needed instead to blend the new building into the cityscape. Australian architect Sam Marshall opted for a safe and functional approach for the arduous task. For the brand new auxiliary building, Marshall selected a single black-and-white hue to minimize the towering modernist building and draw attention to the flow and transmutation of history, as evidenced in the Art Deco style of the main building.

At the same time, the cubic structure met the requirements for exhibition space, which he maximized through geometrical overlay and interspersion. The new building added two sightseeing elevators, three floors of specialized galleries, a library, and a multimedia educational center. A café on the fourth floor is connected to an outdoor sculpture terrace now displaying Fountain, especially created for the MCA reopening by Hany Armanious, who represented Australia in the 2011 Venice Biennale. The work is complemented by a panoramic view of Sydney Harbour. Entrances from George Street and the Harbour facilitate the passage of visitors from one side to the other, and the museum’s huge windows further open up the interior space. (Translated by Marianna Cerini)