Despite the unprecedented challenges presented to all of Australia in 2020, the National Portrait Gallery welcomed the 2019-20 financial year with a sense of excitement as we eagerly moved back to our beloved building and the artwork, and prepared ourselves for a new and invigorated exhibition program.
Following a period of closure from 23 April 2019 for building rectification works, the Gallery reopened to the public on Saturday 14 September 2019 with a stimulating display of the Gallery collection. We then celebrated our first major exhibition following reopening on 10 October 2019. Women in Vogue: Celebrating 60 years in Australia, was launched by the Hon Julie Bishop, in front of approximately 1300 guests at a very glamourous evening event.
The Gallery also launched its annual prizes season including the much-anticipated inaugural Darling Portrait Prize on 5 March 2020. Anthea da Silva won the $75,000 prize with her painting of the ‘high priestess’ of Australian contemporary dance, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM. The prize created a real frisson in the Australian arts community, with the Gallery receiving 331 entrants from every state and territory of Australia. Feedback from artists was enthusiastic and positive with many high-profile artists entering. 20 artists who were already represented in the Gallery collection also entered the prize. I am very thankful for the support of my co-judges, the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Mr Tony Ellwood AM; and the Head of the School of Art and Design at the Australian National University, Professor Denise Ferris.
Our popular annual National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020 called for entries on 2 September 2019, with just under 2800 being received and 48 shortlisted to exhibit. We announced Rob Palmer as the 2020 winner on Friday 13 March, for his photograph, The mahi-mahi. There was a very strong, competitive field of entries and an insightful survey of Australia in the year before covid-19. I would like to extend my thanks to the external judges; Art Gallery of South Australia Curator, Nici Cumpston OAM, and artist, Naomi Hobson, who joined the Gallery’s Curator of Exhibitions, Penny Grist, to review all the entries for this popular prize.
Like all cultural institutions in Australia though, the second half of the financial year presented many unexpected and varied challenges for the Gallery.
Local bushfires, followed by a huge hailstorm in the Australian Capital Territory over December 2019 and January 2020 not only resulted in damage to our iconic building but also provided potentially hazardous conditions for staff, patrons and the Collection. As we were dealing with these issues, the quick onset of the covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 ultimately resulted in the Gallery closing its doors to the public from March to June 2020.
While the nation observed Government directions about social distancing and working from home, so too did Gallery staff as they set about reimagining the program and creating a stronger online presence. The result was a range of online projects that maintained close engagement with our existing audience and bought in a significant new audience from across Australia.
It was a time for us to be innovative and creative, particularly through our digital activity. Our focus was on the development and delivery of new projects, including new online exhibitions, behind-the-scenes virtual tours and informative online articles to replace the printed magazine Portrait. We continued to connect with our existing audiences through the circulation of our regular newsletter Portrait News.
Our virtual environment was vital during this period and we had a number of successful outcomes alongside changes to the NPG website.
One successful example is The Amazing Face, a 14-day adult portrait masterclass, launched at the end of April 2020, which encouraged adults to sign up for the introduction to a portraiture class. We also took the opportunity to re- release and promote over 100 Portrait Stories, featuring interviews with sitters and artists; and to implement a project to grow the Gallery’s resources on the Collection, with the curators leading a team to research biographies of artists and sitters.
Despite not being able to engage directly with the public, we maintained our access and learning programs in a reimagined digital environment, as the education of the public will forever be a priority for the Gallery staff.
One of the casualties of our closure from covid-19 was the postponement of our scheduled major exhibition, Love Stories, from the National Portrait Gallery in London. To say this was a huge disappointment is an understatement as it was a project that we had worked hard on developing during the rectification works in 2019 and into 2020 and very much looked forward to displaying.
Under Government direction, the Gallery reopened to the public on 6 June 2020, reinstalling the 2020 Darling Portrait Prize (DPP) and the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020 (NPPP), as well as a small exhibition of the work of artist, Shirley Purdie. Due to covid-19, these popular exhibitions were cut short so it was very pleasing that they could be displayed once again when the Gallery re-opened.
Last year I provided my first report as Director of this marvellous Gallery and as I reflect on that report, I cannot help but think of the challenges we have faced in the last 12 months which have made me and my team wiser, more resilient and nimble. As the Gallery moves into its next era, the third decade, I truly believe that this country has never needed a Portrait Gallery more than it does right now. As the economy starts to rebuild, we look to inspiring Australians. There is no better place to experience their stories than at the National Portrait Gallery.
At the Gallery, our job is to continue to tell the stories and the narratives that capture the heart and soul of the nation through the lens and the brush of our artists. As an organisation we must continue to strive for excellence and we must keep our motivation high and maintain our enthusiasm for the future.
Finally, I would like to thank the Board and Foundation for their continued guidance and support throughout this financial year. In particular, I have appreciated their unfailing dedication to ensuring the Gallery, its staff and collection were being cared for during what proved to be a most difficult time in our history.
Karen Quinlan AM