From Solange to Kandinsky: ART Gallery NSW Curator Jonathan Wilson On His Unique Role

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, one of the world's only music curators merges art and sound in new, creative ways

A man in a black hat and brown jacket poses near a metal railing
Jonathan Wilson. Photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Anna Kucera

In his signature wide-brimmed hat and artfully draped clothes, Jonathan Wilson is standing in the heart of the new building at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Wilson is the institution’s Music and Community Curator, and he is speaking passionately about his job, peppering his speech with names of obscure artists, film references, historical facts, metaphors and similes. As one of the world’s few music curators at a world-class art museum, Wilson stands out—both visually and in the current institutional landscape.

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“My role is unique,” he tells Observer. “I have a fine arts degree; I also ran a record company, I wrote television scores and I have an understanding of how these things can work in symbiosis.” Wilson has been working with the Gallery since 2016 in community engagement capacities. Ever since starting his new role in 2022, Wilson has been involved in the museum’s programming across the board: infusing exhibitions with sound, crafting musical events to embed in the different galleries and collaborating with artists. “I spend about thirty hours a week trying to find and understand new music,” he says. “Another big part is writing a lot about music, and spending time with artists and curatorial colleagues talking about their programs.”

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His inaugural project as Music Curator involved commissioning three musical pieces to accompany “Affinities and Resonances,” an exhibition of works by American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Working on the project, Wilson, in what would become his trademark move, connected creators who lived in different parts of the world but shared a commonality or could tell a story in a novel way. As a result, the collaborative work of three U.S. and three indigenous Australian composers—guitar player and composer Chuck Johnson with Yuin musician Josh Paton; New York indie rock musician Steve Gunn with Murri artist Amby Downs; and Texan musician Claire Rousay with Yuin artist E. Fishpool—were available for the visitors through headphones, as they made their way through LeWitt’s large-scale, score-like works.

A musician plays in a museum space with many paintings
‘Together In Art,’ a performance by Joji Malani in the Grand Courts of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2020. Photo: Hospital Hill

The creative direction continued the thematic thread of pairing LeWitt’s works with the paintings of Central Desert, Northern Territory painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose art LeWitt knew and was inspired by. “There was this incredible narrative going on between this artist in the center of New York, the center of the art world, and an indigenous artist working in her remote community,” Wilson says. “So we brought together U.S. and indigenous artists to show that this vision of two artists meeting and collaborating in some other point in history can be now made possible through music.”

This particular type of cultural nuance has been informing Wilson’s work ever since. At the entrance to the museum’s South building, which displays indigenous artists, visitors are exposed, though speakers hidden in the hallway, to an audio piece he commissioned and decided to strategically place: the 10-minute long ‘chamberconveyor’ by Dharawal contemporary vocalist Sonya Holowell. “I think it’s beautiful that the impact of the sound can be as impactful as you choose—some people stop and some people hardly pay attention to it,” Wilson says. But, he adds, a sonic piece at what would normally be a quiet, solemn space does make a difference. ”A lot of people come into museums and often want to just take a photo of the artwork, as opposed to spending time with the art. The right kind of music can really lead you through these spaces.”

Occasionally, Wilson’s role involves placing live music within the museum’s walls, in new and creative ways. Last year, he landed a dream collaborator in Solange, who headlined Volume, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new and ambitious music, film and performance festival. The talented multihyphenate, who Wilson regards as “of the most underrated contemporary artists of our times,” had created music for the festival specifically, and performed it at the Tank, an echo chamber-like performance space that’s become part of the museum’s newer modern wing.

Musicians play in front of cubist artworks
A performance in the ‘Masters of Modern Sound’ program held in the ‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage’ exhibition in 2019. © Art Gallery of NSW, Christopher Snee

More recently, he hosted live shows by the Australian group Ensemble Offspring and the Chicago-based, Grammy-winning chamber music sextet Eight Blackbird to breathe audible energy into a Wassily Kandinsky exhibition currently on display, making a point that sometimes, there’s no need to completely reinvent the wheel. “Art around the world is very much about subverting things when it’s possible, but there’s also an opportunity to ensure the work lives in sync with its own space,” Wilson says. “I worked with musicians who weren’t trying to change the narrative of these 100-year-old paintings, but just to make sure we give it another angle. I wasn’t going to pair a hip-hop experience with Kandinsky.”

Similarly, when asked about the persistent trend of immersive, video and audio-based “experiences” of iconic artists—Van Gogh, Picasso and Frida Kahlo to name a few—Wilson weighs his words at first, finally choosing candor: “I’m not that enamored with this,” he says, “because there are amazing contemporary artists, like Tobias Gremmler, who are doing things like that at scale. We should be looking to them to create new Picassos and Van Goghs instead of trying to digitize existing ones. It’s more interesting to see someone pushing the envelope.”

While Wilson’s role in the art world is currently rather rare—most musical curators at art institutions oversee departments that either display musical artifacts or document musical history or theory—he does see a growing curiosity toward music as its own artistic form. He points, among others, to Taja Cheek, composer and curator who creates music under the moniker L’rain and is a guest curator for this year’s Whitney Biennial, as an example of a new path the music-art relationship is taking. “I can see a real sway of music as a form outside of the entertainment space. Music isn’t a transactional experience, it’s not just about entertainment,” Wilson says. “I’m trying to find places where people leave the museum with a conceptual frame that’s adding to their overall experience. It’s an interesting spot to be in.”

From Solange to Kandinsky: ART Gallery NSW Curator Jonathan Wilson On His Unique Role