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Exterior of Artspace in The Gunnery
Photograph: Artspace/Katherine Lu | Exterior of The Gunnery, featuring new commission by Dennis Golding, 'Colouring Memory' , 2023

NOW OPEN: Sydney’s cutting-edge Artspace gallery reveals multi-million dollar makeover

We got a first look at the inside-out transformation of the org’s heritage building in Woolloomooloo, now open to visitors

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

Many have called Woolloomooloo’s historic Gunnery Building ‘home’ over the years, including the artists who squatted there in the ’80s. In 1992, Artspace moved in – a leading institution for the production and presentation of contemporary art in the Asia Pacific – and for some two decades it has filled the historic building with invigorating exhibitions. Art enthusiasts have been patiently waiting for the space to reopen since it closed to the public in July 2021 for an extensive renovation process. Finally, all is revealed, with Artspace throwing open the doors to make a show of a stunning $19.2 million transformation of the state-of-the-art facility.

A stream of reopening celebrations are taking place on Friday, December 15, and Saturday, December 16, at the same time the public gets a first look at the intriguing new exhibitions and a rare look inside the working artist studios upstairs.

This is truly a top-to-bottom reinvention of the heritage-listed building, which was built in the early 20th century – creating a visually striking, functional and accessible space that better reflects and enables the multi-pronged role that Artspace fulfils (there’s a lot more going on than just the exhibitions you see in-house). We got a chance to take a private tour through the building with the Artspace team before the official reopening, and the exciting potential of this renovation became clear – along with the “practically unprecedented” 35-year lease granted by the NSW Government through Create NSW, which guarantees the organisation a secure home base until at least 2058. 

Installation view of Jonathan Jones' Untitled (transcriptions of country) at Artspace
Photograph: Artspace/Zan Wimberley | Jonathan Jones' Untitled (transcriptions of country) in Gallery 1

“We had a dream to reorient the building to use its original entrance to connect with the plaza on Forbes Street,” explained executive director Alexie Glass-Kantor. “Which connects with the Woolloomooloo community, one of the last pockets of social housing in the inner city of Sydney, across the road from Russell Crowe [she gestures to the Ovolo Woolloomooloo, where the actor keeps an apartment] and up the hill from the Art Gallery of NSW. We wanted to amplify those sight lines and create a space where communities could meet and connect in this iconic location.” 

Before you even step inside, the exterior of the building is activated by the Banner Series, a rotating procession of outdoor artworks that’s kicking off with Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding’s ‘Colouring Memory’, which looks at the Victorian architectures and detailing of the terraces that he grew up in on Eveleigh Street in Redfern. 

“We're beginning with a banner project that harks back to the activists, the squatters and to the radical communities that lived and self-organised in the Gunnery with a history of protest groups, bill postering, banners and performance… Over the next five years, there'll be 15 commissions by Australian and international artists on the facade of the gallery that will be seen by a million people a day,” said Alexie. 

Artspace at the Gunnery, 2023
Photograph: Artspace/Katherine Lu | Exterior of The Gunnery, featuring new commission by Dennis Golding, 'Colouring Memory' , 2023

The redevelopment of the Gunnery is not just about making more gallery space – although there is a lot more room to play with now, with the ground floor even being fitted with large windows that open up to connect the indoors with the plaza outside. As Alexie explained, the remodel is about “transforming Artspace to be a multi-platform, agile and responsive space for the vast breadth of visual cultures”

On the ground floor you’ll also find the inaugural exhibition to baptise the reborn gallery, the delicate and cutting Untitled (Transcriptions of Country) by Wiradyuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones; as well as Loupe by Debra Phillips, the first of three artist-led archive-focused projects presented in the smaller Ideas Platform space.

Phillips’ project actually serves as a conduit for Artspace’s former home on Randall Street in Surry Hills, where the organisation was based for ten years before the move to Woolloomooloo – in the very same heritage building that was sadly destroyed by a catastrophic fire in May 2023. Meanwhile, Jonathan Jones’ collaborative body of work is a cross-pollination of form and practice that probes into the repercussions of colonisation. Jones has brought hundreds of embroideries of Indigenous plants and herbs into dialogue with painted portraits,  sculptures, soundscape and video – and the effect is emotive and profound. 

Loupe by Deborah Phillips at Artspace
Photograph: Artspace/Zan Wimberley | Debra Phillips' Loupe, 2023, offset print on 100% recycled paper

Demonstrating that Artspace is dedicated to more than visual art, there’s even a new sound-proofed 250-square-metre multipurpose space on the first floor for showcasing music, dance and performance (“The floor has a light bounce to support dancers and movement.”) Across the hall, you’ll discover a custom-built space for The Franco Belgiorno-Nettis Archive.

“We've created, for the first time in 40 years, a fully accessible library of all our publishing – some iconic queer, culturally diverse and First Nations led publishing particularly – that has never been digitised or available to audiences after the time that it was published,” explained Alexie. Throughout pandemic lockdowns, many Artspace staff were kept busy sorting and auditing four decades of documentation, some of which was being destroyed by rising damp. 

The third floor is home to Artspace’s Artistic Residency Program, where each year they offer ten rent-free studios to support ten artists at all stages of their careers (as well as a studio dog, or two). And these aren’t dingy little subsidised studios either – the whole roof was taken off the building during renovations, and every studio is now up to six-and-a-half metres high, with glorious natural light and its own kitchen. A full solar farm on the roof keeps the carbon footprint low, too. One of the artists amongst the first residency cohort for this new era of Artspace is Julia Gutman, who became one of the youngest ever winners of the Archibald Prize in 2023 for her portrait of singer-songwriter Montaigne, utilising her signature found-textile patchwork style. 

Gemma Smith in their studio at Artspace
Photograph: Artspace/Katherine Lu | 2024 One Year Studio Program artist Gemma Smith in their studio

Alexie adds: “With a 35-year lease on the building, that means that we can plan for artists who haven't yet been born to live and work here at Artspace. The organisation is committed to funding and supporting 350 residencies for artists from emerging through to established.”

With Artspace’s home venue now customised to facilitate that rare harmonious balance of function and beauty, there’s an exciting air of electricity mingling with the salty ocean breeze in Woolloomooloo. With Artspace now open 360 days a year (including over the Christmas and New Years period), it’s time to pay a visit to this legendary Sydney institution. 

Artspace, Woolloomooloo, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission to exhibitions and public programs is always free. Check out the full program of Opening Celebrations from Dec 15-16 over here.


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