If the 2018-19 financial year was a year of celebration, change and renewal for the Gallery, it is fair to say that the 2019-20 financial year was one of challenge and resilience.
We started the financial year with much anticipation as the final rectification works were made to our iconic Gallery building. After five months of closure, it was with great excitement that staff moved back and the doors were officially reopened to the public on the weekend of 14 September 2019. With a refreshed display of the Collection, our appreciative public returned to the Gallery with a sense of optimism, taking in the buoyant atmosphere with specifically- designed reopening programs and accompanying live music.
On 10 October 2019, the Board was pleased to see the launch of the Gallery’s first major exhibition following the reopening, Women in Vogue: Celebrating 60 years in Australia. The Gallery was delighted to partner with Vogue Australia for the exhibition, which comprised stunning portraits and archival images – an array of six decades of iconic Australian women, instructive and exhilarating in equal measure.
The opening event was a huge success with approximately 1300 people in the Gallery including our guest of honour, the Hon Julie Bishop. Vogue Australia editor-in-chief, Edwina McCann, outlined her publication’s role in telling stories, reflecting ‘not only who we are, but also those that have helped us along the journey to a distinct Australian identity’ and then Ms Bishop enthralled us all as she officially launched the exhibition.
Our excitement about the exhibition’s content was matched by our immense and sincere gratitude to the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation, whose support was pivotal in allowing us to proceed with Women in Vogue. The contribution of the Foundation to philanthropic causes, reflecting their love of the arts, remains a measure of comfort to cultural institutions striving to make significant, ongoing contributions to the national cultural landscape. Moreover, with this exhibition’s focus on decades of radiant women, it is only fitting that Susan Wakil was remembered as a fashion- loving epitome of style and sophistication.
Women in Vogue quickly earned the title of the Gallery’s most popular exhibition in five years.
After many years of discussion and planning, the Board was delighted to launch the inaugural Darling Portrait Prize. Gordon and Marilyn Darling are integral to the Gallery’s history as well as its future. They sensed its absence; agitated for its establishment; and showed what its collection might look like. They donated and funded, encouraged others to donate artworks and funds, and provided means for staff development and research projects.
It was Gordon’s generosity in bequeathing a gift that made the Darling Portrait Prize possible. It is also consistent with his commitment to excellence. The annual prize, which is valued at $75,000, aspires to be the most prestigious portrait painting prize in Australia.
On the eve of the prize’s launch on 5 March 2020, we paid tribute to Gordon and Marilyn’s
immense contribution to the Gallery with a special dinner hosted by the Foundation. It was the Darling’s insight, their zeal, their energy and their tenacity that, with the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, gave this country a rare gift: namely a deep insight into its soul and what it means to be an Australian.
We were fortunate to also have the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, and the Gallery’s Patron, Mrs Jenny Morrison, also in attendance at the dinner. The dinner was the first event for Mrs Morrison as our Patron, and provided an opportunity for her to present one of the highly commended artist awards.
Gordon Darling was once asked about the most satisfying moment of his career. His response was: ‘I think the completion of the new building for the National Portrait Gallery – walking through it and seeing the hang being finalised. And then next day the official opening and the excitement of the hundreds who attended. It was an overwhelming happy moment for us both.’ I am sure that he would have been equally pleased to see the great impact created by the Darling Portrait Prize in the Australian arts community; the resulting exhibition, and the inaugural winning portrait by Anthea da Silva, of her painting of the ‘high priestess’ of Australian contemporary dance, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM.
As with most cultural institutions, we increasingly rely on philanthropy to support programs, acquisitions, commissions and exhibitions. In that regard, we were also very thankful for the continued support received from the enlightened philanthropist, Mr Tim Fairfax ac, and his wife Gina. It is through their generosity that the Gallery can continue to offer advanced digital content and educational programs.
The Board and Foundation acknowledged the exceptional contribution Mr Fairfax makes to the Gallery at a special Board dinner on Thursday 26 September 2019. In recognition of his outstanding commitment, the Board also nominate
d to have the Gallery forecourt named in Mr Fairfax’s honour. The Tim Fairfax Forecourt plaque was unveiled by Minister Fletcher that evening.
While this report focuses on the Gallery’s highlights for the 2019-20 financial year, it is difficult not to acknowledge the impact of the unprecedented weather and health related events that have affected Australia and the Australian Capital Territory since December 2019. It ultimately resulted in the Board and Management’s agreeing, on instruction from the Government, that the Gallery must close its door again from 24 March 2020. The covid-19 health crisis has affected all of us and in particular, has had an enormous impact on the arts industry globally. With the benefit of Tim and Gina Fairfax’s generosity, the Gallery was able to develop a range of online projects to maintain close engagement with our existing audience and to engage with visitors online.
The Gallery was also forced to close for one day on 7 January 2020 as heavy smoke from the local bushfires resulted in poor air quality and potentially hazardous conditions for staff, patrons and the Collection. Then on 20 January 2020, the Gallery was affected by the fierce hailstorm that battered Canberra, including many buildings in the Parliamentary Triangle. However terrible these events were, the Board was reassured to hear the positive feedback from our patrons who felt safe being able to take shelter in the Gallery to escape these poor weather conditions. Regardless of these terrifying events, we are resilient and together we will move forward. We will do that with the support of our visitors, as well as our patrons, supporters and staff.
I would like to thank my fellow Board members, and the members of the Foundation, for their continued support and leadership during this financial year. The Board met regularly over this period to ensure that the public, staff and Collection were being cared for in the best possible way. We welcomed the advice from the Minister for the Arts that Australia’s National Collecting Institutions would be able to re-open to the public from 30 May 2020. It is important that this country rebuilds its economy and gets back to a normal life as soon as possible.
Knowing our cultural institutions are integral to this, The Gallery was then quick to reopen on
6 June 2020.
The Board would also like to thank Minister Fletcher for his ongoing support of the Gallery and the arts industry. It is both public and Government and private support, along with prudent financial management that has allowed the Gallery to balance its budget, notwithstanding the unexpected closures for part of the last financial year.
Finally, the Board would like to acknowledge the Gallery’s management, Karen Quinlan am, and her team, as well as all staff and volunteers for their continued dedication and professionalism. Their unwavering loyalty and commitment ensured that the Gallery continued to grow and thrive in what was an unexpectedly challenging year.
Dr Helen Nugent AO