With its neoclassical Greek frontage and modern rear, this much-loved institution plays a prominent and gregarious role in Sydney society. Blockbuster international touring exhibitions arrive regularly and there's an outstanding permanent collection of Australian art, including a substantial Indigenous section. The gallery also plays host to lectures, concerts, screenings, celebrity talks and children's activities. A range of free guided tours is offered on different themes and in various languages. Construction of a second building, Sydney Modern, is due to be completed in 2022.
While the permanent collection has a strong collection of 19th-century European and Australian art, the highlights are the contemporary Indigenous gallery in the basement and the collection of 20th-century Australian art (to the left as you go in), with some standout canvases by the big names of the local painting scene. They are heavily rotated, but look out for Albert Tucker's scary Apocalyptic Horse, Russell Drysdale's brilliant gold-town street Sofala and half a room full of Sidney Nolans, usually including one or more of his extraordinary Ned Kelly paintings. There's a good representation of female artists too, including Grace Cossington Smith's distinctively colourful modernism and several Margaret Olleys. Arthur Boyd works include one of his moving 'Bride' series and his terracotta sculpture of Judas Kissing Christ, while Brett Whiteley is represented by the intoxicatingly blue harbour of The Balcony 2.
The unfailingly controversial Archibald Prize for Australian portraiture exhibits here annually, as do the Wynne Prize (landscape or figure sculpture), the Sulman Prize (subject or mural painting) and the Artexpress exhibition of the year’s best school-student art.
The cafe and restaurant are fine places to hang out, with outdoor seating and views over Woolloomooloo Bay. Wednesday nights are fun too, with talks, live music and other events.
Occupying space to the north of the existing building the new building, Sydney Modern, will be centred on a new Indigenous gallery and a dedicated space for major touring exhibitions. The construction work shouldn't affect gallery visits.