AGNSW redresses history with new facade commission for its iconic entrance

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) has announced that cross-cultural Wiradjuri woman Karla Dickens will create a new contemporary work for the Gallery’s entrance, located in the empty niche above the front door and taking three years to complete.

The work will be launched in 2021 to coincide with the AGNSW’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.

Dickens’ preliminary concept for the facade, To see or not to see (2019), is a powerful exploration of her female and Aboriginal identity and the continuing legacy of colonialism. The concept was on display at the AGNSW for the past five months, part of the exhibition, Dora Ohlfsen and the facade commission. Visitors were able to explore the story of the empty niche on the facade, and proposals by six contemporary New South Wales women artists – Karla Dickens, Deborah Kelly, Sanné Mestrom, Caroline Rothwell, Julie Rrap and Shireen Taweel – for a possible new commission.

Artist Karla Dickens. Photograph: Mick Richards

Each artist reflected on the story of the original facade design by female artist Dora Ohlfsen, which was commissioned in 1913 by the AGNSW trustees, but never realised. One hundred years later, this significant space for sculpture on the Gallery’s sandstone facade remains empty.

AGNSW Director, Dr Michael Brand, said the commission was one way the Gallery was redressing the representation of women artists in the collection.

‘Every day we are working to provide visitors new opportunities to see more great works by women artists, and I will be proud to have Karla¹s work displayed prominently at the entrance to our much-loved historic building. I congratulate Karla and look forward to seeing her progress over the next twelve months as she develops her original concept to a final work,’ Brand said.

The facade commission is an example of the way the Gallery is rethinking its approach to the display of art in the future, creating a new and exciting art journey across both buildings ahead of the completion of the Sydney Modern Project transformation in 2022.

Dickens said she was delighted to have her concept selected for the front of the Gallery and was looking forward to developing it.

‘The work is about women and invisibility, something just as much an issue today as it was in Dora Ohlfsen’s time. The year of her commission in 1913 was the year my grandmother Myrtle was born. She and her family were constantly hiding or being hidden, forced to mask their indigeneity. The issues she faced continue as the legacy of Aboriginal women today, and it¹s important to me, and to my mob from northern New South Wales, to have this chance to speak,’ Dickens said.