Ten years of feel-good modernism: Brisbane's Goma still raises the bar

On its 10th anniversary, the Gallery of Modern Art showcases the breadth of its permanent collection but can’t escape the erosion of traditional art spaces

It only seems like yesterday that I flew up to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art for the grand opening in 2006 – an event that was a launch for both the country’s youngest public art gallery and the fifth iteration of the Australia Pacific Triennial, the gallery’s signature exhibition.

That event a decade ago set the bar for all subsequent Goma openings: lots of colourful, large-scale art mixed with generous free entertainment and bar privileges. And so it was, too, for last week’s 10th birthday bash.

In the gallery itself is Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, a greatest hits exhibition of work from the gallery’s permanent collection mixed with some new commissions. It’s a decent if not hugely exciting show, a series of salon-style hangs of collection works around major sculptural installations such as Nick Cave’s raffia horse costumes, Heard (2013), and Huang Yong Ping’s giant aluminium and steel snake skeleton, Ressort (2012).

If one was to define the sort of art that Goma excels at exhibiting and promoting, it’s a kind of feel-good modernism, with only an occasional nod to the dark side. In the Goma model, art is celebratory rather than overtly political or provocative. Goma’s exhibitions over the last decade are largely indicative of broader trends in Australia’s public museums, where major exhibitions by international artists are scheduled through the year, with smaller shows drawn from gallery collections and solo outings by Australian artists filling up the remainder of the calendar.

But Goma’s strength – and its key difference to galleries around the country – has always been the breadth of its permanent collection. Under various directors at the Queensland Art Gallery, and later Goma itself, the focus has been on acquiring the work of contemporary artists from both Australia and overseas, not just as a way to establish a unique collection, but also because contemporary art was much cheaper to buy than old masters or modernists.

Walking in tall grass, Martin by Jan Nelson, 2007. Oil and liquin on linen, showing at Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything.
Walking in tall grass, Martin by Jan Nelson, 2007, showing at Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything. Photograph: Natasha Harth/GOMA

It was thus on the basis of this permanent collection that Goma has staged some outstanding shows including Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, and 21st Century: Art in the First Decade, both in 2010; Contemporary Australia: Women in 2012 and My Country I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia in 2013. Among these shows has been more predictable museum fare, such as exhibitions by superstar artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman, and major survey shows of modernist movements such as the 2001 exhibition Surrealism: Poetry of Dreams.

Getting the punters through the door is the name of the game for public museums. Their visitor numbers are evidence they’re doing their jobs, so these kinds of shows are both typical of contemporary museums and are usually money-spinners. With such shows headlining, Goma has also done some worthy major solo artist exhibitions, such as the career survey of Australian artist Robert MacPherson in 2015. And the gallery’s secret strength is its Cinémathèque, featuring a smartly curated continuing schedule of rarities and classic films that thematically tie into the gallery’s exhibitions. In the process, it has established itself as one of the leading film programs in the country. Every time I look at Goma’s film schedule I weep and wonder when Sydney will ever get its act together and get its own purpose-built Cinémathèque.

In the 10 years since Goma opened, things have changed in both exhibitions and collecting. The title of the youngest major gallery has now been passed to the privately owned Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, the plaything of millionaire-dilettante-collector David Walsh. But where Mona is a gloomy cavern of art displayed with ghost-train aesthetics, Goma remains a bright and breezy beach house.

The gallery’s big spaces and high roofs suit exhibitions such as Falling Back to Earth, its major show from 2013–14 by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The central work of that exhibition, Heritage (2013), which featured a room full of 99 life-size animal replicas gathered round a waterhole, was acquired by the gallery for a rumoured $4.5m with support from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation. It says much about the logistics of acquiring major international works these days, particularly in an age of an ascendant market for Chinese art. Ten years ago it was almost affordable, but is now the subject of a major effort by the gallery and its benefactors.

The cubic structural evolution project, by Olafur Eliasson.
The cubic structural evolution project by Olafur Eliasson, part of Goma’s 21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition which was held in 2010. Photograph: Natasha Harth/Goma

At the launch of Goma’s birthday celebrations, much was made by the gallery director, Chris Saines, and by the Queensland premier and arts minister, Annastacia Palaszczuk, of the gallery’s 2017 program, the headline event of which is also a testimony to the status of art in culture today: an exhibition of costumes, props and other ephemera from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While there is some logical connection between Goma and Marvel through the shooting of Thor: Ragnarok on the Gold Coast, it also points to the slow erosion of contemporary art galleries as unique places to experience art.

The exhibition of related artforms in galleries, such as fashion design and jewellery, has become commonplace around the world, but for me at least, the invasion of Marvel into yet another cultural space has to be resisted. The only upside I can think of this kind of show is if it allows for more exhibitions of art by living Australian artists – which, paradoxically, have become relatively rare in major Australian galleries. While I remain sceptical that a show like this will have some relevance in an art gallery, we can at least trust Goma’s track record that even if it doesn’t quite measure up as an art show, it’ll at least be fun.

Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything is showing at Goma until 17 April 2017. Guardian Australia was a guest of Goma


Andrew Frost

The GuardianTramp

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