National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Australia

The main entrance to the gallery, in 2012.
Former name Australian National Gallery
Established 1967 (1967)
Location Parkes, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Coordinates 35°18′01″S 149°08′12″E / 35.300399°S 149.136781°E / -35.300399; 149.136781Coordinates: 35°18′01″S 149°08′12″E / 35.300399°S 149.136781°E / -35.300399; 149.136781
Type Art museum
Director Gerard Vaughan
Architect Colin Madigan; Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Partners
Owner Australian Government;
via the Department of Communications and the Arts
Public transit access ACTION buses

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA; originally the Australian National Gallery) is the national art museum of Australia as well as one of the largest art museums in Australia, holding more than 166,000 works of art.[1] Located in Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory, it was established in 1967 by the Australian government as a national public art museum.


Prominent Australian artist Tom Roberts had lobbied various Australian prime ministers, starting with the first, Edmund Barton. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher accepted the idea in 1910, and the following year Parliament established a bipartisan committee of six political leaders—the Historic Memorials Committee. The Committee decided that the government should collect portraits of Australian governors-general, parliamentary leaders and the principal "fathers" of federation to be painted by Australian artists. This led to the establishment of what became known as the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (CAAB), which was responsible for art acquisitions until 1973. Nevertheless, the Parliamentary Library Committee also collected paintings for the Australian collections of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, including landscapes, notably the acquisition of Tom Roberts' Allegro con brio, Bourke St West in 1918. Prior to the opening of the Gallery these paintings were displayed around Parliament House, in Commonwealth offices, including diplomatic missions overseas, and State Galleries.

From 1912, the building of a permanent building to house the collection in Canberra was the major priority of the CAAB. However, this period included two World Wars and a Depression and governments always considered they had more pressing priorities, including building the initial infrastructure of Canberra and Old Parliament House in the 1920s and the rapid expansion of Canberra and the building of government offices, Lake Burley Griffin and the National Library of Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s. Finally in 1965 the CAAB was able to persuade Prime Minister Robert Menzies to take the steps necessary to establish the gallery.[2] On 1 November 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt formally announced that the Government would construct the building.


The design of the building was complicated by the difficulty in finalising its location, which was affected by the layout of the Parliamentary Triangle. The main problem was the final site of the new Parliament House. In Canberra's original Griffin 1912 plan, Parliament House was to be built on Camp Hill, between Capital Hill and the Provisional Parliament House and a Capitol was to be built on top of Capital Hill. He envisaged the Capitol to be "either a general administration structure for popular receptions and ceremony or for housing archives and commemorating Australian Achievements".[3] In the early 1960s, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) proposed, in accordance with the 1958 and 1964 Holford plans for the Parliamentary Triangle, that the site for the new Parliament House be moved to the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, with a vast National Place, to be built on its south side, to be surrounded by a large mass of buildings. The Gallery would be built on Capital Hill, along with other national cultural institutions.[4]

In 1968, Colin Madigan of Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Partners won the competition for the design, even though no design could be finalised, as the final site was now in doubt. Prime Minister John Gorton stated that,

"The Competition had as its aim not a final design for the building but rather the selection of a vigorous and imaginative architect who would then be commissioned to submit the actual design of the Gallery."[5]

Gorton proposed to Parliament in 1968 that it endorse Holford's lakeside site for the new Parliament House, but it refused and sites at Camp Hill and Capital Hill were then investigated. As a result, the Government decided that the Gallery could not be built on Capital Hill.[6] In 1971, the Government selected a 17-hectare (42-acre) site on the eastern side of the proposed National Place, between King Edward Terrace and for the Gallery. Even though it was now unlikely that the lakeside Parliament House would proceed, a raised National Place (to hide parking stations) surrounded by national institutions and government offices was still planned.[7] Madigan's brief included the Gallery, a building for the High Court of Australia and the precinct around them, linking to the raised National Place at the centre of the Land Axis of the Parliamentary Triangle, which then led to the National Library on the western side.

Development of the design

Madigan's final design was based on a brief prepared by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) with input from James Johnson Sweeney and James Mollison. Sweeney was Director of the Guggenheim Museum between 1952–1960 and Director of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and had been appointed as a consultant to advise on issues concerning the display and storage of art. Mollison said in 1989 that "the size and form of the building had been determined between Colin Madigan and J.J. Sweeney, and the National Capital Development Commission. I was not able to alter the appearance of the interior or exterior in any way...It's a very difficult building in which to make art look more important than the space in which you put the art".[8] The construction of the building commenced in 1973, with the unveiling of a plaque by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, during the premiership of Whitlam's successor, Malcolm Fraser. The building cost $82 million.

In 1975, the NCDC abandoned the plan for the National Place, leaving the precinct five metres above the natural ground level, without the previously proposed connections to national institutions [9] and next to a vast space only partially taken up by Reconciliation Place, which does not substitute for the grand mass of buildings originally envisaged.

Appointment of an acting director

The CAAB recommended that Laurie Thomas, a former Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and of the Queensland Art Gallery be appointed Director, but the Prime Minister John Gorton took no action on this recommendation, as he apparently favoured the appointment of James Johnson Sweeney, although he was already 70.

James Mollison was exhibitions officer in the Prime Minister's Department from 1969 and the Government's failure to appoint a director of the NGA required Mollison to become involved in the development of the design for the building with the architects led by Colin Madigan. In November 1970, the CAAB recommended that he should be re-designated as assistant director (development). In May 1971, following Gorton's fall from power, the Government endorsed Madigan's sketches for the building. The new Prime Minister, William McMahon announced the appointment of Mollison as Acting Director of the NGA in October 1971. Tenders for construction were called in November 1972, just before the McMahon government's defeat in the December 1972 election.[10]

The building

Prior to renovations, in 2004

The National Gallery building is in the late 20th-century Brutalist style. It is characterised by angular masses and raw concrete surfaces and is surrounded by a series of sculpture gardens planted with Australian native plants and trees.

The geometry of the building is based on a triangle, most obviously manifested for visitors in the coffered ceiling grids and tiles of the principal floor. Madigan said of this device that it was "the intention of the architectural concept to implant into the grammar of the design a sense of freedom so that the building could be submitted to change and variety but would always express its true purpose". This geometry flows throughout the building, and is reflected in the triangular stair towers, columns and building elements.

The building is principally constructed of reinforced bush hammered concrete, which was also originally the interior wall surface. More recently, the interior walls have been covered with painted wood, to allow for increased flexibility in the display of artworks.

The building has 23,000 m2 of floor space. The design provides space for both the display and storage of works of art and to accommodate the curatorial and support staff of the Gallery. Madigan's design is based on Sweeney's recommendation that there should be a spiral plan, with a succession of galleries to display works of art of differing sizes and to allow flexibility in the way in which they were to be exhibited.

There are three levels of galleries. On the principal floor, the galleries are large, and are used to display the Indigenous Australian and International (meaning European and American) collections. The bottom level also contains a series of large galleries, originally intended to house sculpture, but now used to display the Asian art collection. The topmost level contains a series of smaller, more intimate galleries, which are now used to display the Gallery’s collection of Australian art. Sweeney had recommended that sources of natural light should not detract from the collections, and so light sources are intended to be indirect.

The High Court and National Gallery Precinct were added to the Australian National Heritage List in November 2007.[11]

Lobby area of the National Gallery of Australia in 2005, before the major extension completed in 2010.

Later extensions

The Gallery has been extended twice, the first of which was the building of new temporary exhibition galleries on the eastern side of the building in 1997, to house large-scale temporary exhibitions, which was designed by Andrew Andersons of PTW Architects. This extension includes a sculptural garden, designed by Fiona Hall. The 2006 enhancement project and new entrance was complimented by a large Australian Garden designed by Adrian McGregor of McGregor Coxall Landscape Architecture and Urban Design.

There have also been proposals, during the tenure of Director Brian Kennedy, for the construction of a new "front" entrance, facing King Edward Terrace. Madigan made known his concerns about these proposals and their interference with his moral rights as the architect and also expressed concerns about these changes.[12] A former Director, Betty Churcher, was particularly critical of the building and reportedly told a Sydney journalist that "the dead hand of an architect cannot stay clamped on a building forever". When Ron Radford became Director, he expanded the brief to include a suite of new galleries to display the collection of indigenous art and a new Australian Garden fronting King Edward Terrace.

The Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Rod Kemp, announced on 13 December 2006 that the Australian Government would provide $92.9 million for a major building enhancement project at the National Gallery of Australia, including around $20 million for previously approved building refurbishments. The building enhancements were designed to create new arrival and entrance facilities to improve public access to the Gallery’s building and significantly increase display space, particularly for the collection of Australian Indigenous art.[13] Stage 1 of the indigenous galleries and new entrance project was officially opened on 30 September 2010 by Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of Australia.[14] According to a well known architecture critic, the new extension had three main tasks: "how to dock amicably with the existing architecture; how to provide the resulting whole with a new street 'address'; how to create a logical, legible and deferential hanging space for the collection."[15]

Development of the collection

In 1976, the newly established ANG Council advertised for a permanent Director to fill the position that James Mollison had been acting in since 1971. The new Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced the appointment of Mollison as Director in 1977.

James Mollison

Mollison is notable for establishing the Gallery and building on the collection that had already been assembled of mainly Australian paintings by purchasing icons of modern western art, the best known were the 1974 purchases of Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock ($1.3m), and Woman V by Willem de Kooning ($650,000). These purchases were very controversial at the time, but are now generally considered to be visionary acquisitions.

He also built up the other collections, often with the help of donations. In 1975, Arthur Boyd presented several thousand of his works to the Gallery. in 1977 Mollison persuaded Sunday Reed to donate Sidney Nolan's remarkable Ned Kelly series to the ANG. Nolan had long disputed Reed's ownership of these paintings, but the donation resolved their dispute.[16] In 1981, Albert Tucker and his wife presented a substantial collection of Tucker's collection to the Gallery. As a result of these and more recent donation, the NGA now has the finest collection of Australian art in existence.

He also arranged many touring exhibitions, most famously the The Great Impressionist Exhibition of 1984.

His successor, Betty Churcher has said that when she took over in 1990 he "was of almost legendary stature [and] had single-handedly built a great and comprehensive collection from the ground up; indeed he had presided over the collection for more than twenty years with great flair, and over the institution for seven years—it was in the truest sense, his Gallery, his professional achievement." [17]

Betty Churcher

Betty Churcher became Director in 1990. She had been formerly Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. While director of the National Gallery, she was dubbed "Betty Blockbuster" because of her love of blockbuster exhibitions.

Churcher initiated the building of new galleries on the eastern side of the building, opened in March 1998, to house large-scale temporary exhibitions. It was under her directorship that the name of the Gallery was changed from the Australian National Gallery to its current title.

During her period the Gallery purchased, among many other artworks, Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton for $3.5 million. This was the last great Heidelberg School painting still in private hands.[18]

Brian Kennedy

Brian Kennedy was appointed Director in 1997. He expanded the traveling exhibitions and loans program throughout Australia, arranged for several major shows of Australian art abroad, increased the number of exhibitions at the museum itself and oversaw the development of an extensive multi-media site. On the other hand, he discontinued the emphasis of his predecessor, Churcher, of showing blockbuster exhibitions.

During his directorship, the NGA gained government support for improving the building and significant private donations and corporate sponsorship. Private funding supported his notable acquisitions of David Hockney's A Bigger Grand Canyon for $4.6 million in 1999, Lucian Freud's After Cézanne for $7.4 million in 2001 and Pregnant Woman by Ron Mueck for $800,000.

He also introduced free admission to the gallery, except to major exhibitions. He campaigned for the construction of a new front entrance to the Gallery, facing King Edward Terrace, but this did not come to pass during his tenure.

Kennedy's cancellation of the Sensation exhibition (scheduled at the NGA from 2 June 2000 to 13 August 2000) was controversial, as it was seen by many as censorship. This exhibition was created by the Young British Artists of the Saatchi Gallery. Its most controversial work was Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting which used elephant dung and was accused of being blasphemous. The then Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani campaigned against the exhibition, claiming it was "Catholic-bashing" and an "aggressive vicious, disgusting attack on religion." In November 1999, Kennedy cancelled the exhibition and stated that the events in New York had "obscured discussion of the artistic merit of the works of art." [19]

Kennedy was also repeatedly under attack over allegations that the NGA's air-conditioning was exposing its staff to cancer. Despite his denials that there was any problem with the air-conditioning, claims that the issue had been 'swept under the carpet' persisted. The air-conditioning was finally renovated in 2003.[20] Kennedy announced that he would not seek extension of his contract in 2002. He has denied that he was under any government pressure to do so.

Ron Radford

Ron Radford was appointed Director in late 2004. He was formerly Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Radford has lent out the Gallery's old masters collection (European art, prior to the 19th century) for long-term display to state galleries, noting that he "considers the collection of less than 30 paintings, put together by Mollison to give context to the modern collection, as too small to make any impact on the public". He has been quoted as saying that the gallery should concentrate on its strengths – European art of the first half of the 20th century, 20th-century American art, photography, Asian art and the 20th-century drawing collection, and to fill the gaps in the Australian collection.[21]

In September 2005, there was considerable publicity about an offer to the gallery of Sketch for Deluge II by Wassily Kandinsky for $35 million. The gallery did not subsequently go through with the purchase.

Radford has been notable in securing funding and completing the building of the new entrance to the Gallery as well as an extension for Indigenous galleries, public and function areas. In developing the collection he has been notable for a series of acquisitions of indigenous art, in particular the largest collection of watercolours by Albert Namatjira and the James Turrell sculpture and installation Within without (2010).

Gerard Vaughan

On 16 October 2014 the appointment of Gerard Vaughan as the new Director of the NGA from 10 November was announced. He is a former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria 19992012.[22]


The collection of the National Gallery of Australia includes:

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

This collection is dominated by the Aboriginal Memorial of 200 painted tree trunks commemorating all the indigenous people who had died between 1788 and 1988 defending their land against invaders. Each tree trunk is a dupun or log coffin, which is used to mark the safe tradition of the soul of the deceased from this world to the next. Artists from Ramingining painted it to mark the Australian Bicentenary and it was accepted for display by the Biennale of Sydney in 1988. Mollison agreed to purchase it for permanent display at the NGA before its completion.[23]

Australian art (non-indigenous)

This includes works by:

Sculpture garden

Henry Moore: Hill Arches in the Sculpture Garden

The sculpture garden includes works by:

Western art

Albert Gleizes, 1920, Femme au gant noir (Woman with Black Glove), oil on canvas, 126 x 100 cm (49.6 x 39.4 in)

The focus of the Gallery's international collection is primarily on late 19th-century and 20th-century art [24] although not all artworks are not on display. There is a strong collection of modern works. It includes works by:

The Gallery has a small collection of European Old Master paintings, which are on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.[26]

Major exhibitions


The museum sued antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor in New York Supreme Court for allegedly hiding evidence that an 11th-century sculpture of Shiva Nataraja, that it bought for A$5.6 million in 2008, had been stolen from an Indian temple in Tamil Nadu.[29] The National Gallery has voluntarily removed a bronze statue of Dancing Shiva from display as the Indian government has formally requested the statue's return.[30]

See also


  1. "Annual Report 2011-12" (PDF). National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 8 June 2014.
  2. Green, Pauleen (ed) (2003). Building the Collection. National Gallery of Australia. p. 408. ISBN 0-642-54202-3., pp2-9
  3. Parliamentary Zone Development Plan. National Capital Development Commission. 1982. p. 125. ISBN 0-642-88974-0., p12
  4. Parliamentary Zone Development Plan, pp20-1
  5. Green: p. 339
  6. Parliamentary Zone Development Plan, p23
  7. Parliamentary Zone Development Plan, pp23-4
  8. Green : pp. 379–80
  9. "NGA and High Court – statement of significance". Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Retrieved 3 November 2006.
  10. Green : pp14-17
  11. Australian National Heritage listing for the High Court-National Gallery Precinct
  12. Lauren Martin (19 October 2005). "Gallery defiant over redesign". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 14 October 2006.
  13. "Major expansion of the National Gallery of Australia." (Press release). Senator Rod Kemp. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 14 December 2006.
  14. "National Gallery of Australia". Retrieved 2011-01-01.
  15. Farrelly, Elizabeth (2010-10-09). "Watch this space - Brutalism meets beauty in the National Gallery's new wing". The Sydney Morning Herald."Spectrum" section. pp. 16–17.
  16. Burke, Janine (January 2004). The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide. Milsons Point, New South Wales: Random House. p. 552. ISBN 1-74051-202-2. p350
  17. Green: p175
  18. Green: p174
  19. Valerie M. Arvidson (2006). "A Curator from the Outback". Dartmouth Free Press. Retrieved 14 October 2006.
  20. "Passing on a 'poisoned chalice'". The Age. 14 February 2004. Retrieved 14 October 2006.
  21. "Radford to banish old masters from NGA". The Canberra Times. 12 April 2006. Archived from the original on 3 May 2006. Retrieved 21 October 2006.
  22. Debbie Cuthbertson, "Gerard Vaughan named National Gallery of Australia director". Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 2014. Retrieved 17 October 2014
  23. Green : pp199-204
  24. "Collections of the National Gallery of Australia". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  25. Jane Kinsman. "Vollard Suite". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  26. "Works on long-term loan". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 2013-01-25.
  27. "Imants Tillers". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  28. "George.W.Lambert Retrospective". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 30 January 2011.
  29. News International: The Rest of the Stories That Mattered--At a Glance, The Art Newspaper, March 2014, p. 11.
  30. "Dancing Shiva: National Gallery of Australia to return allegedly stolen statue to India". ABC. 27 Mar 2014. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
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