This is a museum evaluation of the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, visited on 16 April 2022.
The AGSA opened in 1881 for the public in Adelaide, South Australia. The gallery has almost 45,000 works of art, making it the second-largest state art collection in Australia after the National Gallery of Victory (NGV) in Melbourne, Victoria. Besides its sizeable permanent exhibition, the gallery regularly welcomes temporary exhibitions too.
At the time of visiting, two temporary exhibitions are taking place, the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State and Yayoi Kusamas’ THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS.
Free/State, curated by Sebastian Goldspink, examines concepts of surpassing states, from spiritual and imaginative to psychological. It adopts ideas of liberation in composition and cooperation. Artworks part of Free/State reveal themselves with the permanent exhibition of the AGSA.
Kusamas’ exhibition contains one space where she wants the visitor to have a visual fantasy of unlimited space and colour.
If you like art, keep reading, if you are thinking of visiting AGSA, also keep reading. Or if you are just interested in what I have to say, of course, keep reading!
Let us evaluate the visitor experiences of both the permanent exhibition and the temporary ones on the street level.
First of all, if present in Adelaide or planning to visit, experiencing the gallery is definitely worth the time. The architecture of the gallery’s 18th-century classical building is remarkable. Dazzling natural light and high ceilings inside the building give the exhibition a beautiful scenery.
Likewise, it exhibits work from some compelling artists like the world-renowned controversial artist Yayoi Kusama. She has been acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan.
Also, many esoteric and diverse artworks are to be viewed and amazed by, not merely because of the gallery’s extensive size. One video production that stood out was Tracy Moffatts’ Heaven, in which she provokes the viewer by giving them an incredibly close look at a surfers’ intimate moment when they are changing their cloth. A very engaging work as it feels as if the visitor is the one watching the surfers from very nearby.
‘We are all flesh’ from Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere stands out too. It features the skins of two large headless horses stitched together in the middle of the Melrose Wing of European Art. It rightly challenges one of our cognitive dissonances; using animals for human consumption like food, entertainment or art. It is fascinating and challenging to look at, yet it violently gives us a taste of a desperately needed reality.
Lastly, the gallery creates alluring views for visitors by closely placing opposing works jointly. For example, one of Tom Polos’ colourful and childish-looking paintings is encountered right in front of a sculpture of a horse and a painting of Jesus. It creates wonder about what and if a story is to reveal.
So far, those examples are only a few of the beautiful experiences in the gallery. There are some elements, however, on which it can improve.
What could be improved?
The gallery often shows but does not tell the meaning of installations or groups of artworks. The curators have done an excellent job categorizing certain groups of artworks, like paintings from boats at sea. Nevertheless, any story is dismissed. Of course, this can be an intentional choice to make the visitor imagine stories themselves. Many visitors, however, do not think through what it means and might want more clarity. A nudge of information can help create more visitor engagement.
Next, controversiality is a massive expectation for Free/State. Due to the AGSAs’ communication on- and offline. It also sets expectations about the works being deeply touching and tackling contemporary challenges.
However, the exhibitions’ curator created a show that focuses on mainly being aesthetically pleasing. The topics and artworks are contemporary as they speak about Aboriginal art, wars, and waste, yet there is a missed sense of urgency about these topics in the exhibition. For example, some Aboriginal artwork includes stories. It feels, however, that those stories focus on wonder and imagination, not on helping to bring positive change for Aboriginal people.
Wondering around in the museum, another nudge that could have helped guide a visitor is a more prominent location for the placement of the gallery’s names. Only found at the end of the visit, the terms were placed high on the ceilings of the walls, where a visitor might never look. It is essential as it provides visitor guidance.
Overall, the AGSA contains captivating installations. The visit, however, was a visually exhausting experience. There is so much to see, yet no moment of calmness. A lack of balance misses in the overall gallery experience. When creating so much stimulus for a visitor, a moment of calm must be there.
Great visitor experiences
Most visitors seem to create their balance by spending their most significant amount of visiting time at two immersive installations. The yellow polka dot space of Yayoi Kusama had a queue of twenty visitors, whereas the string installation from Chiharu Shiota had about fifteen visitors in it. These rooms encapsulate the visitor fully. A visitor becomes part of the artwork—not just looking but being.
Overall, the type of visitors is diverse, and so is the audience the gallery attracts. They are locals and internationals, as the gallery presents both Australian and international work. More adults than children were present, understandingly, as the AGSA does not contain many interactive elements for kids.
The AGSA is a beautiful gallery that amazes already only through the architecture of the building. The gallery also has diverse and impressive works of art and notable artists who display their work. Exceptionally are the unexpected contrasts created between certain artworks. However, as the gallery offers so many experiences, the visit felt intense and visually exhausting. Lastly, engaging stories can help visitors further immerse and comprehend works of art and groups of works.
Show, and tell.
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Why NOT to visit the Art Gallery of South Australia
If you're in Adelaide, you might or might not want to visit