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In Australia, being cultured used to mean denying the existence of Australian culture. The novelist Patrick White, the country’s only Nobel laureate for literature, set the tone in the 1950s by referring to his homeland as “the Great Australian Emptiness”. The dancer Sir Robert Helpmann, an early winner of the Australian of the Year award, did not help much when he scoffed, "I don't despair about the cultural scene in Australia because there isn't one here to despair about." By the early 1960s, a sense of “cultural cringe” had become firmly lodged in the national psyche – a sense that, when compared to their British and American counterparts, the Australian arts were plainly inferior.

Nowadays, the country has a rich and vibrant arts scene, from the acting of Cate Blanchett to the music of the Aboriginal singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu; from the literature of Christos Tsiolkas, the author of The Slap, to the poetry of the celebrated “bush bard”, Les Murray. Just as important, Australia’s artistic infrastructure is starting to rival its world-renowned sporting infrastructure, with new cultural cathedrals rising up all over the vast continent -- sometimes in unexpected corners.

Consider the new Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania (MONA) which the New York Times called “the best museum you’ve never heard of”. The bunker-like structure, which opened in 2011, looks like it emerges from the banks of the River Derwent outside of Hobart and exhibits more than 400 artistic works across three floors of gallery space. It was the brainchild of Tasmanian millionaire and professional gambler, David Walsh, who wanted to display his private collection in what he called a “temple to secularism” and a “subversive Disneyland”. With exhibits including the dismembered body parts of a suicide bomber rendered in chocolate and a machine that supposedly manufactures excrement, the museum is wilfully shocking. But that has not deterred visitors. Indeed, MONA has produced something of a mini-Bilbao effect for Tasmania.

Less controversial, but just as noteworthy, is the new Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, Queensland -- a state that has long been viewed, perhaps unfairly, as a cultural black hole. Set on the banks of the snaking Brisbane River, across from the skyscrapers of the central business district, GOMA is an airy pavilion-like structure, with outdoor balconies and terraces that nod architecturally towards the open verandas found in so many Queensland homes. By 2010, less than five years after it opened, it had not only become Australia’s most popular gallery, but one of the top 50 in the world. It has also helped turn Brisbane’s South Bank, home to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum and the State Library of Queensland into one of Australia’s hottest stretches of cultural real estate.

Sydney’s artistic skyline has also been enhanced by the opening of a new extension at its harbour-side Museum of Contemporary Art Australia  – a gallery that had outgrown the Art Deco, former maritime building that had been its home since 1991. The new Mordant wing, which looks diagonally across to the Sydney Opera House, has been likened to a Rubik’s Cube. But the architecture is generating less buzz than its signature exhibit, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour cinematic collage made up of minute-by-minute time references from movies. The Guardian has called the work the “most staggering, complex thing made by any artist so far this century”, and each Thursday the museum opens round-the-clock so that visitors can watch its nocturnal hours. Little wonder then that when the revamped museum opened its doors to the public in April, it witnessed the busiest day in its history. More than 100,000 people visited in the first few weeks.

In Melbourne, the city’s civic hub, Federation Square, houses another 21st-century gallery, the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria. It is the first anywhere in the world to be devoted solely to Australian art, and the architecture is eye-catching, with its sandstone, zinc and glass panels likened to the crazy paving one might normally expect to find on an Australian backyard patio.  

More impressive, from an architectural point of view, is its mother gallery situated just over the Yarra River – the mausoleum-like National Gallery of Victoria, which was built in the late-1960s and given a facelift by the Milanese architect Mario Bellini at the turn of this century. Its great hall, with a spectacular stained glass ceiling, looks like the nave of a cathedral.

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