Ron Radford looks to the future of the National Gallery of Australia15 October 2012 Artery
In the week marking the 30th anniversary of the National Gallery of Australia, Director Ron Radford appeared at the National Press Club to outline an ambitious future for the institution which already holds the largest art collection in Australia.
Hallmarks of the next few years at the NGA include digitisation of its 165,000-strong collection and a proposed Stage Two building expansion project—The Centre for Australian Art—which will include bold spaces to showcase non-Indigenous Australian art and Pacific art. The Centre will become ‘a definitive statement by a proud nation celebrating its sophisticated culture.’
Read the full speech below:
I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.
This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the opening the National Gallery of Australia by the Queen.
It was then—and still is—the youngest national gallery in the world.
The Gallery had been vigorously collecting for little more than a decade before the opening. The collecting policy was described in the Gallery’s founding document, the Lindsay Report of 1966. The Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies commissioned the report from Sir Daryl Lindsay, former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria and Chairman of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the precursor of the current Gallery’s governing Council.
What was this new National Gallery, established so late, to collect?
Of course it was to collect Australian art from all over Australia, including Indigenous Australian art. But what international art was it to collect?
For a nation only two centuries old, but with an ancient Indigenous past, Australia’s new National Gallery should not try to emulate the national museums of Old World Europe, formed from princely and aristocratic collections, or the museums already created by the robber barons in the United States. Nor should it duplicate the British collections formed from the mid-nineteenth century in Australia’s six colonial capital cities. It was far too late to commence extensive collections of the art of all civilisations, like many national galleries and museums in the Old World. Nor did it need, at that late stage, to start buying European Old Masters. And our National Gallery should not be seen to be competing with the existing collections of the state galleries, such as their very strong British holdings.
The Lindsay Report was quite specific, unequivocal and logical about what the new National Gallery in Canberra should be collecting. It was to be a national gallery of the New World. It was to collect contemporary international art. Australia’s collections of twentieth-century European and American art were not nearly as strong as its historical collections. This then was an opportunity for Australia to catch up with twentieth-century art, which had become prohibitively expensive.
The Lindsay Report also emphasised collecting art of our Asia–Pacific region, in particular, the art of the Indian sub-continent and the art of Southeast Asia, areas which were not yet well represented in existing Australian collections. Melbourne and Adelaide, for instance, already had considerable Chinese and Japanese holdings. And no Australian art gallery had historical collections of the arts of our Pacific neighbours, the nations of Melanesia and Polynesia. Existing Melanesian collections in Australian museums were collected and displayed as anthropology, not art. Remember too, that at this time, New Guinea was administered by Australia, so a collection of New Guinean art was deemed important. Australia had no major museum or art gallery collection of the island nations of Polynesia, that is, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Easter Island and Maori New Zealand. There was a sense of urgency in the Lindsay Report, as it pointed out that in some collecting areas of our Asia–Pacific region, early fine objects were increasingly difficult to obtain.
So the Lindsay Report wanted the new National Gallery to complement, not compete with, the long-established State galleries. It should do this by acquiring late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century international art; Asian art—particularly the art of our nearest neighbours, the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia; and the arts of the Pacific nations. The policy was not too broad to dissipate resources and therefore compromise quality.
This wise and forthright policy has been vigorously adopted. At times in our short history we have strayed from the Report’s sensible directions, but we are very much on track today. With the great injection of funds starting with the Whitlam government from 1973, the National Art Collection grew in leaps and bounds. The Gallery’s collections have also hugely benefited from the generosity of many private patrons around the nation who are committed to the Gallery’s national vision.
The National Gallery of Australia now has the largest art collection in Australia. However, few Australians know the facts and figures about their National Art Collection. This 30th anniversary address is a good opportunity to highlight this information, which I will now do, under the headings of the collection, access and learning, displays and exhibitions, before revealing our vision for the future.
The Gallery now holds more than 165,000 works—more than twice the number in the next largest State gallery collection. Valued at $4.7 billion, the National Art Collection is also by far the most valuable art collection in Australia. Indeed, it is the single most valuable asset in the National Capital.
It has been put together in a relatively short time, largely by distinguished Gallery directors and collection curators. And here I pay tribute to my esteemed predecessors—our founding director, James Mollison, followed by Betty Churcher and Brian Kennedy—and to eminent past Chairmen over the last thirty years— L. Gordon Darling, The Hon. Gough Whitlam, the Hon. Lionel Bowen, Kerry Stokes, Harold Mitchell, Rupert Myer and currently, Tim Fairfax.
But more important than the size and value of the collection, how does its quality fare internationally?
Well, we have the finest collections of twentieth-century European and American art in Australia, as was always planned. Outside America, we have probably the finest collections of American art from the golden period of the 1940s to the 1980s, when it was the most dynamic art in the world. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles is still the centrepiece of that collection and remains our most famous and now most popular painting. Controversial when it was purchased in the 1970s for over $1 million, it is now worth close to $200 million!
Our collection of the Indian sub-continent is not only the strongest in our region outside India itself, it is also one of the highest quality Indian collections in the world. It represents nearly two thousand years of Indian culture, and includes architectural pieces, sculptures, textiles, paintings and, unusually, the art of photography from the 1850s onwards.
Our Southeast Asian collection, although it has gaps, is one of the most balanced collections outside Southeast Asia. It represents countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, through their sculpture, textiles, decorative objects and more recently, their early photography. Our Southeast Asian textiles collection, especially our Indonesian textiles collection, is one of the largest that exists. Our recently compiled collection of early Indonesian photography is the most representative outside the Netherlands.
Our Pacific Arts collections, for an art gallery, are also very strong in world terms. And small though our Polynesian gallery is, it is the only gallery in an Australia museum or art gallery devoted to the island nations of Polynesia.
We have the most comprehensive collection of early Asia–Pacific photography in the world, most of it acquired over the past seven years.
These strong collections of our region will become increasingly important for ‘soft’ international diplomacy and for Australians to understand and be stimulated by the diverse rich cultures of our near neighbours. Even our American collection, collected because it was the most cutting-edge art of the mid-to-late-twentieth century, can now be seen as a cultural compliment to one of our strongest allies. This additional role for our international cultural collections in the National Capital could be used to greater advantage.
We should be aware of new Australians, keeping in mind, for example, Australia’s fast-growing population of people from the Indian sub-continent, and our large and growing Polynesian community.
So much for our international collections. Now to our collection of Australian art. How does it fare in comparison to the state collections founded 100 years earlier?
From the early 1970s, the Gallery was consciously collecting not only in the traditional media of painting and sculpture, but also in media overlooked at the time by the state galleries. Consequently, we have collected Australian printmaking, photography, drawing, decorative arts and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in considerable depth. While most state galleries now collect these formerly neglected media, none of their collections can be compared with the huge holdings of these media at the National Gallery of Australia. Also, in more recent years, the National Gallery has made a concerted effort not only to build a balanced collection of the art of Melbourne and Sydney, where so much Australian art has been created, but also to create detailed collections of art from the smaller capital cities of Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Hobart, as well as the art of the regions such as Northern Queensland, Northern Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory itself.
It is important that each state gallery holds the art of its state in considerable depth. Indeed, they all do this very well and have done so for a long time. But the National Collection needs to represent Indigenous and non-Indigenous art from all states and territories, in considerable depth and in all media. Our collection of Australian Indigenous art is the largest that exists. And so it should be! This is a national keeping place. It is, after all, the National Collection of Australian Art. The entire Australian collection now comprises over 104,000 works, more than three times the size of the next largest state gallery collection.
As I said, few know these statistics about the National Collection, which is owned by all Australians.
Now, on the occasion of our 30th Anniversary, it is time to reveal our aspirations for the future.
It is no secret that most art galleries around the world have more works in storage than on display. However, of all the collections in Australia, the National Gallery of Australia has by far the greatest proportion of its collection in storage. Only 2% of the collection is on display.
It is true that many of the works in storage are light-sensitive works on paper, such as prints, drawings and photographs, which would be damaged by exposure to light if put on permanent display. It is also true that we tour exhibitions from our collection around Australia and occasionally overseas. Indeed, we lend nearly 2000 works a year. Nonetheless, far too many works in the National Collection are denied to the public who own them. Our great challenge for the immediate future is to make this vast number of valuable works available to the public.
Fortunately, new digital technology will help make the collection more accessible. Our aim is to put online digital images of all the 165,000 works in the collection, to be seen in classrooms, in every home, indeed, anyplace, anywhere with internet access. We aim to digitise 18,000 works a year. This annual goal is greater than the number of works in each of four state art collections. It is an ambitious project. We have already more than 60,000 works available online but there is a long way to go! We are seeking extra funding to achieve this and our other ambitious digital initiatives, which are extensions of our comprehensive access and learning program.
We have a dedicated, highly professional education team to look after the many students and visitors to the collections and exhibitions. In addition, we have a volunteer force of 120 well-trained Gallery Guides for both students and the public.
We design and deliver a wide range of programs for particular groups.
For example, the Gallery’s acclaimed Wesfarmers Arts Indigenous Art Leadership program, launched here at the Press Club in June 2010, provides a unique opportunity for twelve Indigenous Australians from every state and territory to participate in a visual arts leadership program at the Gallery. Now in its third year, this initiative with Wesfarmers is helping to develop the next generation of Indigenous Australian leaders in the visual arts sector.
Every January over the past ten years, the Gallery has hosted the National Summer Art Scholarship, which provides 16 Year 11 students—two from each state and territory—with a week spent immersed in art at the National Gallery. The program is designed to encourage talented students to explore professional careers in the visual arts generally, and art galleries in particular.
Another innovative access and learning initiative is our Art and Alzheimers program. In collaboration with Alzheimer’s Australia ACT and NSW, the National Gallery continues to lead in the field of art and health by developing specialised tours of the collection for people living with dementia, and providing training for health and education professionals in regional and state centres. Dementia is increasingly common in Australia and around the world. Dementia patients generally retain an appreciation of art and music far longer than their other failing powers. The Gallery’s Art and Alzheimers program is one of only two such dementia programs in the world. It is sponsored by the Thyne Reid Foundation and has received a number of state and national awards.
A very popular initiative in recent years has been the family activity rooms in our major exhibitions. Family activity rooms are sponsored by the Myer family’s Yulgilbar Foundation. By providing children with a variety of creative activities based on the exhibition, they enrich a family’s visit to the National Gallery and expand their understanding of art. Located within the exhibition space, the family activity rooms have been hugely popular with children and adults. Family rooms play an important role in encouraging the next generation of visitors to explore and delight in these major exhibitions, while their parents are also enjoying the exhibition.
I have highlighted only a selection of our learning and access initiatives. And I acknowledge the loyal support of our education partner, the National Australia Bank, also, of course, sponsors of this National Press Club.
I have mentioned our central role in collection building, and in access and learning, but not yet our role in presenting temporary exhibitions.
When the Queen opened our building in 1982, it did not have a temporary exhibition gallery. At the time it was thought that permanent displays of the great collection would be enough. Temporary exhibitions would not be needed.
This is far from the case now. And we have subsequently added a purpose-built temporary exhibition gallery.
The National Gallery of Australia is now well known for its dynamic exhibitions. It is especially known around Australia and the world for international blockbusters, which began towards the end of James Mollison’s directorship in the mid 1980s, and gathered momentum in Betty Churcher’s time from the early 1990s. Increased costs, difficulties of international loans and Canberra’s small population caused a lull in our blockbuster exhibitions in the early 2000s. And it was rightly thought they were too financially risky to stage. But in recent years, the Gallery has adventurously scheduled regular summer blockbusters and we intend to increase the number next year for the Centenary of Canberra.
Canberra and the National Gallery have become known for these international blockbuster exhibitions. They are now expected. A recent survey conducted by the ACT Government showed that they were the prime reason Australians visit Canberra in summer and autumn.
Our Masterpieces from Paris exhibition of 2010 still holds the national record for art exhibition attendance, with nearly 500,000 visitors in four months. And it is true that of the top 15 best-attended art exhibitions in Australia’s history, five were held at the National Gallery of Australia in lil’ ol’ Canberra. Canberra’s population of approximately 350,000 is too small to be sole supporters of the cost of staging blockbuster exhibitions. Visitors must and do come from all over Australia.
Indeed, they account for nearly 80% of the audiences for these exhibitions. It has been estimated that the National Gallery’s seven blockbuster shows of the past seven years have brought $300 million to the local economy.
Canberra, as was always planned, is a central place. A meeting place, as its name means in the Aboriginal language. And so these exhibitions are a major meeting place for the nation.
But the great blockbuster shows like Turner, Monet & Japan, Degas, this year’s Renaissance exhibition, and the forthcoming Toulouse-Lautrec blockbuster, are not our only important exhibitions. These shows attract publicity and big numbers. But we stage other shows of equal standing, shows that are ground-breaking and revelations. They include retrospective exhibitions of Australia’s early artists such as Eugene von Guérard, Robert Dowling, George Lambert and Sydney Long, our current exhibition.
They include survey exhibitions of our Asia–Pacific neighbours, such as our intriguing 2010 Life Death and Magic, the first large survey, anywhere, of the Animist ancestral art of Southeast Asia, a belief system that predates Buddhism and Hinduism in our region; the first ever survey of the early photography of the Asia and Pacific Rim which we held in 2008; our recent exhibition of the art of the Solomon Islands and our forthcoming exhibition of the art of Vanuatu. These are firsts.
Such exhibitions can never be expected to draw the large blockbuster numbers, but it is essential that we continue to maintain such informative and often challenging shows. They include our now established National Indigenous Art Triennials which survey the most recent contemporary Aboriginal art, to show how dynamic and innovative our ancient Aboriginal culture is.
We also tour exhibitions internationally. For instance, we are currently working with the Royal Academy in the centre of London on a large exhibition of Australian art. The theme is Australian land and landscape. This, the most significant survey exhibition of Australian art yet staged outside Australia, will cover 200 years of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian art. It will open in September 2013.
Early next month, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, we open an exhibition of our famous Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly Series, the best-known series of Australian paintings. We plan to show these works in the United States before they return home.
We publish significant books and catalogues for all of our major exhibitions. They are written mainly by our curators, and feature original research and insights. Indeed, the National Gallery is one of Australia’s major art publishing houses.
Over 20 years ago, we initiated our extensive Australian touring exhibition program. Every year our exhibitions travel the land, mainly to regional galleries in every state and territory. To date we have sent 120 exhibitions to 735 venues throughout Australia. Early this year, we received our 9-millionth visitor to this touring program. Currently, we have six exhibitions touring Australia, including our Fred Williams retrospective.
Earlier, I mentioned our aspirations to get our huge collection online, accompanied by interactive information.
I well remember, when technologies emerging in the 1990s were making digitisation possible, many doubters believed it would stop people visiting galleries. The public, they said, would look up images of the works rather than visit the collections to see the works firsthand. I did not believe then that this would be the case, and I certainly don’t believe it now. In fact, digitisation of the collections inspires our audience, both young and old, to visit more often. Gallery audiences are growing around Australia. The internet feeds curiosity to stand before the original work itself and experience the object in all its dimensions and materiality.
So it is not enough for us to get every object online accompanied by interpretive texts. We must get more than the current 2% of our collection on display in Canberra. Australians want to see more of their valuable National Collection.
Seven years ago this week I launched my Vision for the National Gallery of Australia. It included refocusing the collection policy back to its origins, strengthening the recommendations of the Lindsay Report; restoring the original building; improving and re-aligning the collection displays; bringing our substantial Indian and Southeast Asian collections up onto the main floor and expanding and relighting the displays; expanding the international painting displays to include prints, drawings, decorative arts and Australian art, to make the displays truly international and to show Australian art in the context of the world; restoring sculpture to the original lofty downstairs sculpture gallery which had been used for other purposes for nearly two decades; expanding the Pacific Arts displays; and expanding and improving the Australian displays by adding partitions, double-hanging, and using historic wall colours, especially in the colonial displays.
Most significantly, that new vision for the Gallery put the case for Stage One and Stage Two of a building expansion program.
Stage One was completed two years ago. It has included a new accessible entrance on the ground floor at the front of the building. (What a novel idea to have a front door at the front on the ground floor!) It includes greatly improved arrival and entrance facilities; a new expanded shop; and this great Gandel Hall for openings, dinners, fundraisers, function hire, conferences, education, and now temporarily the venue for the National Press Club. We don’t know how the National Gallery and Canberra managed without it.
Stage One also included a specially designed oval gallery for our famous Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly Series on the main floor, in place of the original shop. More significantly, we included 11 new galleries and spaces for Indigenous Australian art, of which we have the largest collection, to show the diversity of Indigenous art in each room. There is a specially designed circular space for the Aboriginal Memorial, appropriately one of the first works you see on entering the Gallery. The Aboriginal galleries were the first increase in display space for our permanent collection since the plans for the original building were drawn up in 1970.
Stage One has been enthusiastically embraced by the public since it opened in September 2010.
I am proud to be able to say that all of my 2005 Vision for the National Gallery of Australia has been achieved, with one exception which I will shortly address.
One of the reasons I did not want to talk to the Press Club about my aspirations for the Gallery when I first arrived in Canberra—in spite of your many invitations—was that experience has taught me it is better to talk about aspirations after they have been achieved. Which is now. And I have observed that, for all their enthusiasm, there is a tendency among incoming directors, when outlining their visions in their maiden speeches, to inadvertently insult the achievements of their predecessors.
The one thing left to achieve from that original Vision is Stage Two, which we call The Centre for Australian Art.
The Gallery Council was divided about separating the building expansion into two stages. Half the Council argued strongly that the 1970 plans for the Gallery building were conceived largely before the collections were formed, and were for the Gallery to show only 1000 works. The collections were now developed and huge. And the building had never had an increase in the permanent collection space. Indeed, it also lacked the facilities now expected of a modern gallery. Therefore, they argued, we should build Stages One and Two together.
However, ultimately it was decided to expand the building in two, more manageable, stages. Stage One is now completed. Let us now turn to the planned Stage Two, The Centre for Australian Art.
This is not only to get more Australian and Pacific art out of storage and on display. The Gallery made a fundamental mistake in its 1970 decision to relegate our Australian art to secondary status in the building plans. That is, Australian art was consigned to the low-ceilinged, less accessible upstairs galleries, frequently referred to now as ‘the attic galleries of Australian art’. Some visitors never find these galleries of their Australian art. A National Gallery of Australia should show Australian visual culture in pride of place—much more accessibly, attractively, and comprehensively. In the National Galleries in Washington, London and Ottawa, for example, the art of their respective nations is displayed prominently, beautifully, spaciously and proudly, as it should be. The 1970 decision to relegate Australian art to the attic was a terrible display of cultural cringe.
In stark contrast, Stage One of our building program provides a showcase for our Indigenous Australian art collection, at the front of the building in spacious, beautiful, accessible galleries.
Stage Two will do the same for non-Indigenous Australian art and Pacific Arts. In Stage Two, Australian art will be brought down from the cramped ‘attic’ to occupy its own spacious galleries on the main floor. These completely new galleries for Australian art will be in a new wing that encircles the present but expanded temporary exhibitions galleries. The new Australian galleries will be illuminated from above by natural daylight, the same light in which most of the works were created. And in the same way we have successfully lit the main Indigenous galleries.
The future Stage Two galleries for Australian art will flow from the new galleries for Indigenous Australian art and will include paintings, sculptures and the decorative arts. Appropriately, visitors will encounter Indigenous art first. Then they will enter an introductory gallery showing eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century European exploration art in the Pacific. From there, the Stage Two galleries will be arranged chronologically from the colonial period onwards. So the first gallery after the introductory gallery will show New South Wales colonial art, then the colonial art of Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.
Each gallery will be designed for the specific scale of a different kind of Australian art. For example, there will be spacious galleries with high ceilings for the large Federation figure and landscape paintings, and smaller, lower-ceilinged galleries for modernist pictures of the 1920s and 30s. Larger galleries will hold neoclassical figure paintings and sculptures of the same period, followed by smaller galleries for Australian modernism of the 1940s. Large high spaces will be designed to accommodate the diverse forms of contemporary Australian art.
Our current small and awkward space for contemporary art is an insult to living Australian artists. It is the smallest and most compromised contemporary display space of the major galleries in Australia. One only has to compare it with the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, the new John Kaldor space in Sydney, or the contemporary spaces in Federation Square in Melbourne.
Adjacent to the main day-lit galleries for the chronological displays will be small side galleries with lower ceilings and artificially lit with controlled low light levels. They will be similar to the successful side galleries off the major new Aboriginal galleries. The side galleries in Stage Two will display light-sensitive works on paper—watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs—as well as textiles. They are especially important for the periods of Australian art when works on paper (such as early colonial watercolours) are artistically stronger and more numerous than more robust oil paintings. We have the finest and largest collection of Australian works of art on paper. Some of the smaller side galleries will concentrate on Australian decorative arts and design.
There will also be galleries designed to incorporate exceptional works in the collection which we cannot display at present. Examples include Napier Waller’s large mural design I’ll put a girdle round about the Earth; John Olsen’s major painting Sydney sun installed as it was intended—as a ceiling; Arthur Boyd’s painstakingly restored Harcourt dining room murals, which currently exist as wrapped and stored fragments of rubble; and Arthur Boyd’s huge tapestries. So many of our exceptional and unique works need specially designed spaces.
Stage Two will also include a series of galleries for the traditional art of the Pacific nations. There will be a large gallery for our comprehensive collection of the art of New Guinea, small galleries for our less extensive Solomon Islands and Vanuatu collections, and an expanded space for Polynesian art.
These galleries for the Pacific Arts will be strategically placed towards the end of the new Australian wing, reflecting their geography in relation to Australia, and they will also be connected to the galleries devoted to Southeast Asian art. This will be the first time an art gallery in Australia has paid such great attention to the Pacific Arts, past and present. It is a major new initiative and very significant for our region.
In summing up, for art–political reasons and ease of access, the art of all the major cultures should have a significant presence on the same accessible main-level floor. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, no galleries of Australian art have been specially designed to reflect the scale and differences of works in the history of Australian art. Instead, Australian art has to fit into existing general spaces.
In Stage Two, beneath the main-level galleries for Australian art, will be display storage for Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative arts. Display storage is very dense floor-to-ceiling displays of artworks which are accessible to the general public. It is now common in the United States, for example, the American display storage at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has long existed for Old Master paintings at the National Gallery, London. Yet it has never been incorporated successfully into an art museum in Australia. Display storage will help relieve our acute storage problem and make all the Australian collections completely accessible to the public (other than light-sensitive works on paper and textiles). It will enable all paintings, decorative arts and sculptures to be on permanent display.
Adjacent to the display storage area and completing The Centre for Australian Art will be state-of-the-art education facilities including new lecture rooms, activity rooms and viewing rooms, an expanded children’s gallery, and the Gallery’s relocated Research Library and artists’ archive. Our Research Library is the largest art library in Australia. At present it is hidden away on levels 3 and 4.
While visitors complain they get lost in the current building, Stage Two will much improve circulation.
In the original building, the upstairs ‘attic’ galleries were never suitable for the great number of works in our Australian collection and the complexities and scale of much Australian art. However, these smaller spaces with their low ceilings and lack of daylight are ideal for international works on paper and Asian textiles. Our holdings in these collecting areas are the largest in the nation, yet at present only a few works can be displayed at a time. Indeed many of these light-sensitive works have never been seen. In Stage Two, the vacated upstairs Australian galleries will be renovated, relit and repartitioned to display our vast collections of International prints, drawings, photographs and Asian textiles.
There will be an expanded gallery for European and American prints of the 1950s onwards, as the National Gallery has the largest collection in the world (14,000 works) of this late-modernist American movement. There will be a sizeable gallery for our large collection of European and American photographs and importantly, a gallery for Asia–Pacific photography of the 1840s to 1940s, the only gallery in the world devoted to early Asia–Pacific photography. We have recently expanded this collection, which is one of the very few collections in the world to concentrate on early photographic art from countries of the Pacific Rim, such as Japan, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, as well as from India and Sri Lanka. It is the most balanced collection of this material that exists.
With international works on paper and textiles going upstairs, the present Orde Poynton Gallery on the main floor below will be dedicated to our extensive collection of the art Indonesia, our largest near neighbour. This will be another first in Australia, and one of the very few Indonesian galleries outside Indonesia to display the sculptures, textiles and decorative arts of that huge nation.
As part of Stage Two, the sculpture garden will be extended to join the current Australian garden, which holds our grand Turrell sculpture.
Perhaps this vision for Stage Two and The Centre for Australian Art is too much detail for a Press Club talk. But the god of Stage Two is in the detail.
There are compelling reasons to get more of the National Collection on display, particularly Australian art.
Australia has always had a rich visual arts and crafts tradition. And it is important that our art museums, and especially the National Gallery of Australia, tell the full rich story of Australian art.
Indigenous Australians have always had a strong visual arts tradition. They may not have had a written language but they communicated and celebrated their traditional spiritual life in their painting and sculpture, and on sacred and practical implements.
When the European settlers arrived on this continent, painting was the first art form they practised professionally, followed by printmaking and crafted furniture. The colonial artists celebrated their new home with potent images of what was to them a strange but intriguing new homeland. They created paintings and prints of the Indigenous inhabitants, the flora and fauna, their developing settlement and finally, of the compelling landscape. It helped them understand the land they had claimed. Painting preceded other art forms in Australia, such as musical composition, choreography and literature.
This strong visual arts tradition has continued to this day. And since the Federation period, Australians have been great art gallery visitors. Then, they came to see Australian Federation landscapes by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Hans Heysen, Frederick McCubbin, W.C. Piguenit and Sydney Long. Today, 9 million Australians visit art museums and galleries every year. It is the highest attendance per capita in the world.
I believe we are essentially a ‘visual’ nation, and we should be proud of it. While it is an oversimplification, we could be labelled a substantially visual culture, just as we may say that Germany is substantially a music culture, Britain is predominantly a literary culture, and Italy is largely a visual culture.
I am privileged to have been in the position to help build large collections of our visual culture in a number of institutions over almost 40 years, and to expand art displays (which I have done in Adelaide and Canberra).
But Stage Two, The Centre for Australian Art, is about much more than getting our strong visual culture on display for all Australians, as important as that is. It is a statement about our maturity as a cultural nation. Australia is not just a successful economy; not just a great sporting nation; not just a nation proud of our war achievements and sacrifices; and not just largely about men’s achievements in these areas. It is also about women. Australia has a rich, inclusive ethos with an ancient, unique Aboriginal heritage and two and a quarter centuries of strong European visual culture which has been transformed by this distinctive continent.
The Centre for Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, in the national capital, is much more than an expanded building to house the only balanced collection of our visual culture, a truly national collection. It is a definitive statement by a proud nation celebrating its sophisticated culture.
Image Credit: Ron Radford. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia,.