A framework for understanding contemporary art

On the surface, the systems and subjects of contemporary art can appear esoteric. This is because contemporary art is a living ecosystem, always shapeshifting and unfolding, where artists, curators, galleries, patrons and observers work in dynamic relation to each other, and the present. Artists today are as bound to a millennia of predecessors as they are attempting to build something new, operating in the twenty-first century as cultural custodians, community agents, practical visionaries and radical entrepreneurs.

There are number of generative forces powering the production and understanding of art in the twenty-first century. These forces, described here as engines, address some of our more pragmatic questions: how does a work of art make it into a collection and why bother collecting art, anyway? Who decides which works of art make it into the history books? Why is an artist’s studio important? These engines shed light on the structures of contemporary art, helping illuminate the ways we produce, understand and champion art and artists of today.

Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu, The Mulka Project, Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, Northern Territory, 2019; photo: Nat Rogers.

Studios and Art Centres

A location for experimentation, failure and to test new ideas

Photo: Saul Steed


A specially designated site for the display of works of art and visual material culture

installation view: 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Landed by Ian Strange, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

Public Art

Memorials to monuments, sculptures to site-specific installations, projections to posters, street art to street furniture

Abdul Abdullah, Australia, born 1986, Understudy, 2019; Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.


Large-scale art exhibition that occurs every two years

image: Sarah Contos, Australia, born 1978, Sarah Contos Presents: The Long Kiss Goodbye, 2016, Sydney, screen print on linen, canvas and lamé, digital printed fabrics and various found fabrics, PVC, poly fil, glass, ceramic and plastic beads, thread, artists' gloves, 610.0 x 330.0 x 25.0 cm; Gift of the James & Diana Ramsay Foundation for the Ramsay Art Prize 2017, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Station Gallery, Melbourne.

Art Prizes

A significant one-off investment in an artist's career

Bea Maddock, born Hobart 1934, died Launceston, Tasmania 2016, In the interim and red text, 1994, Launceston, lutruwita (Tasmania), inkjet print on paper, 41.5 x 29.3 cm (sheet); Gift of David Archer 2016, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © estate of the artist.

Arts Writing

Platforms for the critical reception of art

Construction of Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1974–5 at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1974.

Collections and Archives

The bedrock to any public or private collecting institution

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

This education resource has been developed in collaboration with ACE Open and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Written by Dr. Belinda Howden with contributions from Louise Dunn, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.