In 2020–21, the impacts of COVID-19 continued to be felt throughout the artistic program, significantly changing exhibition dates, audience capacities and methods of engagement. Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is the most significant exhibition of works by women artists in Australia. Bringing together iconic works from the national collection with strategic loans, the exhibition illustrates the calibre and diversity of women’s practice in this country in the 20th and 21st centuries. The exhibition was accompanied by an expansive publication that profiled more than 150 artists with texts written by 115 women writers. The book aimed to highlight the artists and their work and shift assumptions that the histories of art are male dominated.
As part of the Gallery’s larger Know My Name initiative, and in response to the exhibition, the Know My Name Conference was held virtually from 10 to 13 November 2020. Foregrounding First Nations perspectives and diverse voices, the digital event brought together leading and emerging international voices from arts and academia to share ideas, insights and creative practice. Special emphasis was placed on creating an accessible, inclusive and participatory conference, with all sessions live captioned, AUSLAN interpreted, and audio described. The conference was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.
A highlight of the wider Know My Name program was Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhales: Every heart sings events, in which Skywhalepapa took flight alongside Skywhale over Canberra in early 2021, followed by a national tour. The presentation of the Skywhales was accompanied by a program of events and performances.
International artists also provided a key focus of the program with the major ticketed exhibition Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London. Originally planned for November 2020, Botticelli to Van Gogh opened in March 2021, and was the first major international exhibition in Australia since COVID-19 closed international borders. Despite border closures and social distancing restrictions the exhibition attracted 200,975 visitors, the highest visitation to a ticketed temporary exhibition in a decade. The 61 works in the exhibition were the largest number ever to travel outside of the United Kingdom in the National Gallery, London’s 197-year history.
The National Gallery also presented a number of free exhibitions including: a major exhibition of works by Shanghai-based artist XU ZHEN® in XU ZHEN®: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION, presented with the support of Dr Judith Neilson AM and the White Rabbit Collection, Sydney, which was enjoyed by 216,486 visitors; The Body Electric, supported by the Medich Foundation, showcased photographic and video work by women artists; and Joan Mitchell: Worlds of Colour, exhibited works on paper from the Kenneth Tyler Collection that were produced by the American painter and printmaker Joan Mitchell during the final stage of her career. This was accompanied by a publication funded by Kenneth Tyler AO.
Temporary exhibitions were supported by ever-evolving presentations of works from the permanent collection. Over 2020–21, presentations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Australian art (through the exhibition Belonging: Stories of Australian Art), Asian art, and International art were maintained and developed by collection curators to draw out new scholarship and conversations between artworks. Two new collection displays rounded out this year’s activities: Emotional Body examines depictions of the human body across cultures, materials, time and traditions; and Towards Abstraction tracks the development of abstraction through its origins in landscape.
In June, the National Gallery launched Printed: Images by Australian artists 1942–2020, the third and final book in Roger Butler’s series on the history of Australian prints and drawings. This new volume was supported by the Gordon Darling Foundation and John Hindmarsh AM and Rosanna Hindmarsh OAM, and completes the most comprehensive account of printmaking and drawing in Australian art history to date.
Patricia Piccinini: Skywhales – Learning Gallery (7 March 2020 – 31 May 2021) XU ZHEN®: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION (14 March 2020 – 14 March 2021) The Body Electric (22 June 2020 – 26 January 2021) Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, Part 1 (14 November 2020 – 9 May 2021) Joan Mitchell: Worlds of colour (13 February – 26 April 2021) Joan Ross: Collector’s Paradise (26 February – 8 March 2021) Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London (5 March – 14 June 2021) Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, Part 2 (12 June 2021 – 26 January 2022) Know My Name Conference (10 November – 13 November 2020
Collection presentations: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Collection (ongoing) International Art Collection Level 2 (until 9 May 2021) Belonging: Stories of Australian Art (until 11 July 2021) Devotion: Asian Art (until 18 July 2021) Emotional Body (from 24 April 2021) Towards Abstraction (from 24 April 2021)
Publications: Know My Name Printed: Images by Australian artists 1942–2020 Joan Mitchell: Worlds of Colour Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London Every Heart Sings children’s picture book
The National Gallery of Australia and Wesfarmers Arts developed the touring exhibition Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, providing a significant opportunity to present the work of leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in an international context. The exhibition will open at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in December 2021 before touring to the National Gallery Singapore in 2022.
Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia surveys historical and contemporary works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across Australia. Drawn from the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the tour’s major sponsor and Indigenous Arts Partner, Wesfarmers Arts, the works in this touring exhibition bridge time and place and are interconnected through story and experience. Ever Present includes over 100 works by over 90 artists that underline the ever-present existence of the First Peoples of Australia. The exhibition features works from the late 19th century by William Barak, Wurundjeri/Woiwurung peoples, through to key and a diverse range of contemporary artists including Daniel Boyd, Kudjla/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Jagara/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung peoples, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Kaiadilt people, Richard Bell, Kamilaroi/Kooma/Jiman/ Gurang Gurang peoples, and Yhonnie Scarce, Kokatha/Nukunu peoples.
Ever Present is one of the most significant international touring exhibitions developed by the National Gallery of Australia and will promote the artistic, cultural and political perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists; building understanding and an audience for First Nations art and culture in regions where it has had minimal exposure. Accompanying the exhibition will be a catalogue and series of public programs, providing exhibiting artists the means of raising their profile on a global stage to inspire deeper engagement.
The National Gallery’s Touring Exhibition program experienced many cancellations and deferred displays this year due to COVID-19. Despite this, total visitation on tour was 92,351, from a target of 100,000. Six Touring Exhibitions criss-crossed the country in 2020–21: The Ned Kelly series continued its tour of all states and territories; Art Deco completed a four-venue tour at the Hazelhurst Arts Centre in Gymea; Body Language travelled from Lismore Regional Gallery to the Museum of Art and Culture Lake Macquarie before finishing at the Horsham Regional Art Gallery; Terminus travelled to Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and Maitland Regional Art Gallery (after pandemic-related cancellations last year); Defying Empire, the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, concluded its national tour at the Australian National Maritime Museum; and Skywhales: Every heart sings commenced its national tour in April at the Murray Art Museum in Albury.
The National Gallery Art Cases were refurbished and expanded this year with the support of the Neilson Foundation. Initially established in 1988 with funding from the Wolfensohn Foundation, the cases are designed to be held and touched by participants and travel to libraries, galleries, schools and community centres across Australia.
The National Gallery also enhances networking through a new focus on regional initiatives, through our Regional Initiatives Program. With significant support from Metal Manufactures Ltd, we established the new position of Regional Initiatives Officer. This position focuses on sharing the national collection to all regions nationally through short-, medium-and long-term loans.
The Regional Initiatives Program augments regional gallery exhibition programs through our extensive loan structure. Beyond the Touring program, the initiative will also provide improved opportunities to build the National Gallery’s established network of regional galleries and foster new relationships across the country.