The National Gallery of Australia has an extraordinary history of bold and progressive artistic programs, strategic collection building and important initiatives aimed at making the visual arts more accessible across Australia, both physically and in the way that it approaches art as a means of understanding the world, of respecting different cultures and perspectives and of opening up new ways of seeing. I feel privileged to lead the Gallery into its next chapter and look forward to building on this history.
Caring for and shaping a collection as significant as the Gallery’s is a critical responsibility, as is finding new ways to share it with the nation and the world. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of my predecessor Dr Gerard Vaughan AM in this regard and to thank him for his many contributions to the Gallery and the national arts agenda over the past four years.
Building and refining the national collection
My first year as Director of the Gallery offered an opportunity to work with my colleagues on the Council to review our direction and ambition. Our new vision is ‘to inspire creativity, inclusivity, engagement and learning through artists and art’, and our new mission is ‘to lead a progressive national cultural agenda by championing art and its value in our lives’. This renewed direction puts art and artists at the centre of everything we do and clearly articulates our role as Australia’s national gallery.
To support the vision and mission, a new Vision for the national collection was developed during the year. Bold and brave collecting defined the Gallery’s beginnings and is essential to our future direction. The national collection must enshrine excellence and the exemplary, enlivening the creative pulse of the nation and having a lasting and meaningful impact on Australian culture. The new focus for the collection is to acquire works of singular outstanding quality that will enhance its stature and relevance and to refine it through connoisseurship and by deaccessioning works that no longer contribute to its quality and impact.
A number of major acquisitions were made during the year. Assembly 2019, a three-channel video installation by Australia’s representative at the Venice Biennale, Angelica Mesiti, captures one of Australia’s foremost women artists at her breakthrough international moment. Her work is innovative and speaks to us of the need for connection during these disrupted times. Mesiti has a unique capacity to engage her audience, and people around the country will have the opportunity to experience this when Assembly tours nationally from next year in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts.
Audiences have been fascinated by another recent acquisition, Urs Fischer’s candle sculpture Francesco 2017. Alive and constantly changing, this shape-shifting wax model is emblematic of art of the twenty-first century. Community support is central to our ability to acquire world-class art. Francesco was the focus of our annual fundraising Gala, and we are grateful to everyone who contributes to this event, supporting the Gallery’s important role in bringing the most innovative and progressive art to Australian audiences.
Another highlight was the specially commissioned animated illumination by Tony Albert, I AM VISIBLE 2019. Canberra’s Enlighten festival was the perfect platform to shine a light on issues around the experience of Indigenous Australians. The illumination of the Gallery’s brutalist facade brought the stories of proud, young Aboriginal men to life for a wide audience. We continue to explore innovative ways to tell the stories of all Australians.
With the assistance of supporters of the Members Acquisition Fund 2018–19, the captivating nine-panel masterwork Landstory 2018 was acquired for the national collection. A seminal work by Mamu and Ngadjon artist Danie Mellor, who is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary art practitioners, Landstory places the Indigenous connection to Country at its heart and speaks both to the past and to our future.
These are only some of the works acquired for the national collection during the year. Further details on acquisitions are on pages 26–9.
A major focus during the year has been to reimagine collection displays and recalibrate the artistic program. A new secondary temporary exhibition gallery was established by reconfiguring gallery spaces on Level 1, giving us the capacity to fill in gaps in the artistic program between major temporary exhibitions and gallery changeovers.
A dedicated sculpture gallery was reintroduced and marks a departure from the traditional arrangement of our displays. The inaugural exhibition in this space, Bodies of Art: Human Form from the National Collection spans centuries and invites the viewer to consider what it means to be human.
Considerable planning has been undertaken for the rehang of our galleries for Australian and Asian art, both of which will open late in 2019. Designs for all reorientation work respect the intent of the building’s original architect, Colin Madigan, by revealing covered aspects of the original architecture and drawing inspiration from the building’s materials and geometry. These rehangs extend to previously dormant pockets and transitional zones, bringing them to life with the collection and new commissions.
One of our most popular new works of art, THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS 2017 is an infinity room by Yayoi Kusama. It was acquired last year with the support of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett and installed in our international galleries in November. Kusama’s work is admired internationally, and this infinity room has become a destination piece for visitors to Canberra and the Gallery.
Cartier: The Exhibition, which showcased more than three hundred items from the Cartier collection and international collections, closed early in the 2018–19 financial year and was extremely popular with visitors. American Masters 1940–1980, from August to November 2018, showed the depth of our postwar American art collection, one of the largest outside the United States—thanks largely to the vision of our inaugural director James Mollison AO. It was great to see our most well-known masterpieces on display with some that are rarely shown due to the limited space in our collection galleries. This was an opportunity for people to experience more of this important part of the collection.
In December, Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate introduced our audiences to Britain’s first distinctly modern art movement. Never has a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of this scale and calibre been seen in Australia. We are very grateful to the Tate for parting with many of its highly visited works of art—in particular, two of Britain’s most loved paintings, Ophelia 1851–52 and The Lady of Shalott 1888—so that we could share them with the people of Australia.
The artistic program also included a major international exhibition in June 2019, with the aim of encouraging visitation to Canberra in winter. Monet: Impression Sunrise revealed for Australian audiences the great Impressionist master Claude Monet’s world-famous paintings from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which holds the largest Monet collection in the world.
Among the works was his extraordinary Impression, sunrise 1872, which made its long awaited debut not just in Australia but in the southern hemisphere. Curated by Marianne Mathieu, Scientific Director at the Musée Marmottan Monet, the exhibition also included key paintings by JMW Turner, whose early works inspired Monet, along with other artists who found a voice in Impressionism. My thanks go to the Musée Marmottan and Art Exhibitions Australia, who partnered with us to bring this exhibition to Australia.
Another important exhibition that opened in June was Contemporary Worlds: Indonesia, the first major exhibition of contemporary Indonesian art shown in Australia. The exhibition reflects the social and political changes negotiated by Indonesia over the past twenty years and showcases some of the most exciting new and established artists from the key artistic centres of Bali and Java. They are engaged, connected and responsive to ideas and issues—and many are now represented in the national collection.
The Gallery continues to support the Government’s wider cultural agenda, advancing Australian art and the national collection through our engagement in cultural diplomacy.
We recognise that our audiences are dynamic and diverse, and creative engagement is at the heart of our programs. During the year, the Gallery developed the Learning Strategy 2019–21, which aims to embed the experience and understanding of art and the Gallery’s collection by creating diverse and accessible learning opportunities for our audiences throughout their lives. The strategy has a new emphasis on programs for young audiences and on artist-led projects, and we are continuing to work with the education sector, primary and secondary, to ensure we cater to its needs and create a lifelong learning pathway for our audiences.
The generosity of Tim Fairfax AC allowed the Gallery to review the impact and alignment of our engagement and learning spaces. The Tim Fairfax Learning Gallery opened with the exhibition Body Language—part of our response to the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The second phase of this project, the Tim Fairfax Studio will open in October 2019 and be accompanied by a Mobile Studio. These dedicated gallery and studio spaces ensure strong connections to the national collection, exhibitions and the learning outcomes of the national curriculum. We appreciate Tim’s ongoing assistance to engage and energise the younger members of our audience.
A focus of programming was the 30th anniversary of The Aboriginal Memorial 1987–88, which was celebrated in a two-day symposium, supported by Wesfarmers Arts, our Indigenous Arts Partner. Conceived by Djon Mundine OAM in collaboration with Ramingining artists of central Arnhem Land, this important installation is the first work seen by visitors to the Gallery on arrival.
The voices of women artists have been under-represented for too long. During the year we announced Know My Name, a major campaign to recognise and celebrate Australian women artists. The campaign will include social media and digital activations, outdoor media, research, fundraising, exhibitions, retail partnerships and creative collaborations. Building on the work of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, which asked people in 2016 if they could name five women artists, the campaign aims to drive awareness of women who have made or are making a huge contribution to Australia’s cultural life.
A new senior management structure was implemented during the year with a focus on building capacity and capability, particularly in relation to financial and corporate management, which are essential to supporting the Gallery’s artistic program. Kym Partington was appointed as Chief Finance Officer and commenced a program to strengthen the Gallery’s financial base by developing a Financial Sustainability Strategy, increasing our focus on commercial activity and creating a financial planning and analysis team.
We are grateful to the Government for allocating additional funding in the 2018–19 to 2020–21 budgets to contribute toward capital maintenance of our main building in Parkes. Additional Government funding during the year was announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2018–19 to allow the Gallery to continue to safeguard and exhibit its important national collection.
We strengthened our corporate base with a new Chief Operating Officer role, to which Nicholas Meatheringham was appointed, to oversee People Support and Development, ICT, Facilities and Security and a new Capital Works Program for the remediation of critical building works.
Natasha Bullock commenced as Assistant Director and is responsible for management of the curatorial and programs teams. The Gallery will continue to review the alignment of services across the organisation with the aim of improving efficiencies, workflow and communication across areas with common goals and responsibilities.
A new strategy framework was developed to define our goals and aspirations for the 2019–23 period and identifies ten milestones, the key strategic investments required to achieve these milestones and the outcomes to measure success.
Only a week after I started on 2 July 2018, Ryan Stokes took up the position of Chair of our Council, and I would like to thank him for his strong leadership and extraordinary support during the year. The Council makes an invaluable contribution as the Gallery’s governing body, and the commitment and enthusiasm of its members is inspiring.
I would particularly like to recognise Tim Fairfax AC, Jane Hylton and John Hindmarsh AM, whose terms on the Council have now concluded, and thank them for their dedicated service to the arts in Australia. During the year, the Hon Richard Alston AO and Stephen Brady AO, CVO, joined the Council and bring with them considerable experience in diplomacy, government and the arts.
The Gallery is grateful to the Hon Mitch Fifield, former Minister for Communications and the Arts, and the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, for their leadership and enthusiastic encouragement.
I would like to thank our colleagues at the Department of Communications and the Arts for their ongoing support and engagement, particularly Secretary Mike Mrdak AO and his team: Richard Eccles, Dr Stephen Arnott PSM, Ann Campton, Sarah Vandenbroek and Simon Kelly.
The efforts of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation, led during the year by Chair John Hindmarsh AM, have been essential in support of our acquisitions and activities. We could not present our exhibitions program and acquire masterworks for the national collection without the assistance of our sponsors and donors, and we remain deeply grateful to the ACT Government for their ongoing engagement.
Finally, I would like to thank the exceptional staff and volunteers who have so graciously welcomed me to the National Gallery of Australia over the past twelve months.