Ghost exhibitions

A wall awaiting the installation of the exhibition Some mysterious process

Exhibition interrupted: spaces awaiting the installation of the exhibition Some mysterious process

Exhibition interrupted: spaces awaiting the installation of the exhibition Some mysterious process

I have never thought much about the so-called ghost ships that sail across oceans without benefit of crew. Some, I know, are real-life mysteries, such as the Mary Celeste, found adrift on the Atlantic Ocean in 1872 with everything intact (including 1500 barrels of alcohol) except for a missing lifeboat and the ship’s entire crew. Others are long-standing fictions that appear from nowhere like phantoms before disappearing again for no apparent reason: the legend of the Flying Dutchman, for example, which can be traced back to the 17th century, inspired an opera by Richard Wagner in the 1840s and, more recently, featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise.

The coronavirus crisis reminded me about this phenomenon, as art museums around the world closed their doors to the public in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Behind these doors lurk what I have come to think of as ‘ghost exhibitions’. After rigorous curating and, especially in the case of major international projects, extraordinary feats of diplomacy and logistical planning, these new exhibitions are now moored in their beautifully designed spaces lacking only one thing: an audience.

Some of these exhibitions did manage a few days of public existence, including the international blockbuster Gerhard Richter: painting after all which had a run of nine days in New York before The Met closed on 13 March 2020. At our Gallery, Under the stars, which has been curated by Jackie Dunn and Cara Pinchbeck to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in what became Sydney, and which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous art to highlight our shared understandings of the night sky, lasted just two days.

Under the stars is one of the Gallery’s ghost exhibitions

However, many fully-fledged ghost exhibitions have failed to open at all.

This is a particularly sore spot for me. Having worked for almost 20 years now as an art museum director in North America and Australia, I had wanted to get back to some hands-on, collection-based curating as the Art Gallery of New South Wales prepared for the completion of our Sydney Modern Project in 2022. I had expected the results of this curatorial endeavour – an exhibition titled Some mysterious process: 50 years of collecting international art – to open to the public in Sydney this coming weekend. Well, that’s what I thought, until coronavirus turned up here first. The day the Gallery shut to the public, this past 23 March, was the very day the exhibition was scheduled to start being installed.

Weaving together multiple threads of history, Some mysterious process tells the story of how our international contemporary collection has come together, through both planning and serendipity, highlighting some of the wonderful works of art acquired by the Gallery over the past 50 years. The exhibition also provides a platform for thinking about future collecting as we look ahead to the completion of the Sydney Modern Project with its significant new spaces for the display of our contemporary collection.

Craig Willoughby from Skyview Aerial Photography guides a drone through the Gallery spaces in preparation for filming

The gallery spaces that had previously housed the John Kaldor Family Collection have been entirely refashioned and repainted for this exhibition; the works of art selected for display have been readied by our conservators; and all the didactic panels and labels have been written and edited. Happily, a decision has now been taken to proceed with installation over the coming weeks as we prepare for a much-awaited re-opening to the public later in the year. I am looking forward to sharing this process with you via our Together In Art platform so you can feel part of this project even before it opens. As you should now expect from Together In Art, we want this to be an innovative process. In that spirit, we started earlier this week by filming the empty spaces with an expertly guided drone. Stay tuned!