While Kings Cross may never shake its reputation for playing host to the dark side of Sydney’s nightlife, there’s a diversity of experiences to be had beneath its gritty surface. From established institutions to low-fi artist-run initiatives, the galleries hidden around this bohemian ‘burb will give you a unique insight into the current art zeitgeist.
If the Art Gallery of NSW is the heart of Sydney’s art world, then a walk down the hill to Woolloomooloo will take you to the start of a journey through its circulatory system. Artspace, established in 1983, has been housed in the historic Gunnery Building on Cowper Wharf Road since the early 1990s. It places artists and their practice at the centre of its programming, through exhibitions, residencies, lectures and publications. A critical conduit for dialogue around contemporary art, Artspace provides a rigorous, internationally-facing context for Australian artists and their work.
For a historic detour, dodge the joggers as you climb the McElhone Stairs to Potts Point. The Yellow House on Macleay Street was once host to Sydney’s most vibrant artistic communities. Home to Martin Sharp, George Gittoes and John Olsen in the early 1970s, its mural-covered walls have since given way to various incarnations of galleries and restaurants. It is currently occupied by Yellow – a sophisticated weekend brunch stop to fortify you for the gallery crawl ahead.
On Macleay Street a cluster of galleries is setting the pace. Minerva exhibits artists at the cutting edge of Australian contemporary practice. The schedule includes solo and group shows from local, Kiwi and European artists, as well as cross-generational surveys with accompanying publications. With exhibiting artists such as Marian Tubbs, Jonny Niesche and Hamishi Farah making waves in 2014, Minerva is one to watch.
Round the corner in Llankelly Place you’ll find The Cross Art Projects, run since 2003 by a collective of independent curators. A schedule of curated and solo exhibitions is accompanied by programming of conversations and round-table discussions. Whilst placing itself firmly in a cross-cultural context, The Cross Art Projects is also keenly aware of the local, regularly giving voice to activist, architectural and heritage groups.
Across the lane is Breezeblock, which since late 2013 has operated out of unoccupied retail space in an arcade, with the blessing of the resident developer. From the irreverence of Mark Shorter’s Tino La Bamba to the quiet consideration of curator Isobel Parker Philip, this unique environment has already hosted a diversity of exhibitions, performances, publication launches, residencies, and artists talks – a testament to artists’ ability to activate dormant spaces.
Llankelly Place has drawn some hip bars and cafes that might seem more at home in neighbouring Darlinghurst – but they’re here to stay, and the locals are loving it. Why not join them for a caffeine-based pick-me-up at the popular Room 10, or if it’s wine o’clock already, stop in at LL for a stronger refreshment.
Once suitably invigorated, weave your way past the iconic El Alamein Memorial Fountain and descend into another unlikely venue – the Kings Cross car park. Alaska Projects has lived here since late 2011, with solo and curated exhibitions featuring artists such as Nell, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Samuel Hodge taking place in and around a disused mechanics workshop space (with the traveller’s car market humming in the background). With public programming including music and film also a regular feature, Alaska is a hidden gem.
From the concrete jungle to the lush verdancy of Elizabeth Bay, trot down the hill to Michael Reid. The Sydney branch of Reid’s multi-gallery enterprise (the others are in Berlin and the Hunter Valley) represents the work of Australian artists including Joan Ross, Petrina Hicks, Christian Thompson and the estate of Adam Cullen. The gallery also offers expert advice on Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander work, as well as non-Indigenous work from the colonial to the contemporary.
Back up the hill, The Drawing Room can be found in The Cross Books on Roslyn Street. An exhibition program focussed on unique and editioned works on paper, surrounded by shelves stacked high with books, is an appealing place to wind down.
Walk past the glow of the Coca-Cola billboard and take in Ken Unsworth’s iconic public sculpture, Stones against the sky. Dividing opinion since it was erected in 1998, this work is a reminder of the power art has to keep us talking. If you’re in the mood to keep the conversation going, head down Victoria Street and plonk yourself at one of the communal tables at Jimmy Liks. Sip on a cocktail or tuck into some of the South East Asian fare on offer – you’ve earned it.
Alaska Projects, 9A Elizabeth Bay Road, Elizabeth Bay, Sat & Sun 1-6pm, alaskaprojects.com
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Mon & Tues 10am-5pm, Wed 10am-9pm, Thurs to Sun 10am-5pm, artgallery.nsw.gov.au
Artspace, 43 – 51 Cowper Wharf Road Woolloomooloo, Tues to Fri 11am-5pm, Sat & Sun 12-4pm, artspace.org.au
Breezeblock, Shop 10 24/30 Springfield Avenue, Potts Point, Sat & Sun 1-6pm, breezeblock.com.au [update: gallery closed in 2015]
The Cross Art Projects, 8 Llankelly Place, Kings Cross, Thurs to Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 11am-5pm, crossart.com.au
The Drawing Room, 33 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross, Mon to Sun 10am – 6pm, facebook.com/drawroom
Michael Reid, 44 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay, Wed to Sat 11am-5pm, michaelreid.com.au
Minerva, 4/111 Macleay Street, Potts Point, Wed to Sat 12-6pm, minervasydney.com