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Art Gallery of New South Wales

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Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Established 1874
Location The Domain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Director Dr Michael Brand
Public transit access St James
Martin Place

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), located in The Domain in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, is the most important public gallery in Sydney and the fourth largest in Australia. The Gallery's first public exhibition opened in 1874. Admission is free to the general exhibition space, which displays Australian (from settlement to contemporary), European and Asian art.


19th century

The Art Gallery of New South Wales (c.1900)

On 24 April 1871, a public meeting was convened in Sydney to establish an Academy of Art 'for the purpose of promoting the fine arts through lectures, art classes and regular exhibitions.' From 1872 until 1879 the Academy's main activity was the organisation of annual art exhibitions. The first exhibition of colonial art, under the auspices of the Academy, was held at the Chamber of Commerce, Sydney Exchange in 1874. In 1875 Apsley Falls by Conrad Martens, commissioned by the trustees and purchased for £50 out of the first government grant of £500, became the first work on paper by an Australian artist to be acquired by the Gallery.[1]

The Gallery’s collection was first housed at Clark’s Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street where it was open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The collection was relocated in 1879 to a wooden annexe to the Garden Palace built for the Sydney International Exhibition in the Domain and was officially opened as "The Art Gallery of New South Wales". In 1882, the first Director, Eliezer Montefiore and his fellow trustees opened the art gallery on Sunday afternoons from 2 pm to 5 pm. Montefiore believed:

... the public should be afforded every facility to avail themselves of the educational and civilising influence engendered by an exhibition of works of art, bought, moreover, at the public expense.[2]

The destruction of the Garden Palace by fire in 1882 placed pressure on the government to provide a permanent home for the national collection.[1] In 1883 private architect John Horbury Hunt was engaged by the trustees to submit designs. The same year there was a change of name to "The National Art Gallery of New South Wales". The Gallery was incorporated by The Library and Art Gallery Act 1899.[3][4]

In 1895, the new Colonial Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon (1846–1914), was given the assignment to design the new permanent gallery and two picture galleries were opened in 1897 and a further two in 1899. A watercolour gallery was added in 1901 and in 1902 the Grand Oval Lobby was completed.[4]

20th century

W.B. McInnes's Archibald Prize winning Portrait of Miss Collins (1924)

Over 300,000 people came to the Gallery during March and April 1906 to see Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World. In 1922, the inaugural Archibald Prize was awarded to W.B. McInnes for Desbrowe Annear. James Stuart MacDonald was appointed director and secretary in 1929. In 1936 the inaugural Sulman Prize was awarded to Henry Hanke for La Gitana. John William Ashton was appointed director and secretary in 1937.[1]

William Dobell, photographed by Max Dupain (1942)

The first woman to win the Archibald Prize was Nora Heysen in 1938 with her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the wife of the Consul General for the Netherlands. The same year electric light was temporarily installed at the Gallery to remain open at night for the first time. In 1943 William Dobell won the Archibald Prize for Joshua Smith, causing considerable controversy. Hal Missingham was appointed director and secretary in 1945.

In 1958 the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act was amended and the Gallery’s name reverted to "The Art Gallery of New South Wales".[5]

In 1969 construction began on the Captain Cook wing to celebrate the bicentenary of Cook's landing in Botany Bay. The new wing opened in May 1972, following the retirement of Missingham and the appointment of Peter Phillip Laverty as director in 1971.[1]

The first of the modern blockbusters to be held at the Gallery was Modern masters: Monet to Matisse in 1975. It attracted 180,000 people over 29 days. The 1976 Biennale of Sydney was held at the Gallery for the first time. The Sydney Opera House had been the location for the inaugural Biennale in 1973. Edmund Capon was appointed director in 1978 and in 1980 The Art Gallery of New South Wales Act (1980) established the "Art Gallery of New South Wales Trust".[6] It reduced the number of trustees to nine and stipulated that "at least two" members "shall be knowledgeable and experienced in the visual arts".[1]

With the support of then Premier Neville Wran a major extension of the Gallery became a Bicennential project. Opened just in time in December 1988, the extensions doubled the floor space of the Gallery. In 1993 Kevin Connor won the inaugural Dobell Prize for Drawing for Pyrmont and city. In 1994, the Yiribana Gallery, dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, was opened.[1]

21st century


Art After Hours program was initiated with the Gallery opening hours extended every Wednesday. The inaugural Australian Photographic Portrait Prize was won by Greg Weight. The Art Gallery Society of New South Wales celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Rudy Komon Gallery exhibition space was opened, followed by the new Asian gallery.[1]


An exhibition of Man Ray’s work set an attendance record for photography exhibitions, with over 52,000 visitors. A legal challenge was mounted against the award of the Archibald Prize to Craig Ruddy for his David Gulpilil, two worlds. The Anne Landa Award was established, Australia’s first award for moving image and new media. The Nelson Meers Foundation Nolan Room was opened, with a display of five major Sidney Nolan paintings gifted to the Gallery by the Foundation over the past five years.[1]


myVirtualGallery was launched on the Gallery’s website. The former boardroom was reopened for display of paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Australian artists.[1]


Justice Hamilton ruled in favour of the Gallery over the disputed 2004 award of the Archibald Prize to Craig Ruddy. James Gleeson and his partner Frank O’Keefe pledge $16 million through the Gleeson O’Keefe Foundation to acquire works for the Gallery’s collection.[1]


On 10 June, a 17th-century work by Frans van Mieris, entitled A Cavalier (Self Portrait), was stolen from the gallery.[7][8] The painting had been donated by John Fairfax and was valued at over $1 million.[9] The theft raised questions about need for increased security at the gallery.[10]

The Belgiorno-Nettis family donated $4 million over four years to the Gallery to support contemporary art.[1]


The Gallery purchased Paul Cézanne’s painting Bords de la Marne c1888 for $16.2 million – the highest amount paid by the Gallery for a work of art. The NSW Government announced a grant of $25.7 million to construct an offsite storage facility. The gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection to the Gallery was announced. Valued at over $35 million, it comprised some 260 works representing the history of international contemporary art.[1]


The refurbishment of the 19th-century Grand Courts was celebrated in the Gallery’s inaugural 'Open Weekend’.[1]

John Kaldor Family contemporary gallery (2014)

A new contemporary gallery (Kaldor Family) was created by removing storage racks from the lowest level of the Captain Cook wing, and relocating artworks to off site storage. The new purpose-built off-site collection storage facility began operations.

The awarding of the Wynne Prize to Sam Leach for Proposal for landscaped cosmos caused controversy due to the painting’s resemblance to a 17th-century Dutch landscape.

The Gallery announced Mollie Gowing’s bequest of 142 artworks plus $5 million to establish two endowment funds for acquisitions: one for Indigenous art and a larger one for general acquisitions.[1]


The exhibition The First Emperor: China’s entombed warriors attracted more than 305,000 people. The new contemporary galleries were opened, including the John Kaldor Family Gallery, plus a dedicated photography gallery and a refurbished works-on-paper study room.[1] Edmund Capon announced his retirement after 33 years as director.[11]


Dr Michael Brand assumed the role of director in mid 2012. Picasso: masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris closed after attracting almost 365,000 visitors – the largest number ever to an exhibition at the Gallery. Michael Zavros won the inaugural Bulgari Art Award with The new Round Room. Kenneth Reed announced his intention to bequeath his entire private collection of 200 pieces of rare and valuable 18th-century European porcelain valued at $5.4 million.[1]

Gallery at night (2013)

The Gallery unveiled a strategic vision and masterplan, under the working title Sydney Modern: a proposal for major expansion and renewed focus on serving a global audience. The aim is to complete the project by 2021, the 150th anniversary of the Gallery’s founding in 1871.[1]

The Gallery received A$10.8 million ($9.9 million) from the State government to finance the planning stages of Sydney Modern, which would see the construction of a new building and double the size of the institution. The money will be used over the next two years for feasibility and engineering studies related to the use of land next to the gallery’s existing 19th-century home, and to launch an international architectural competition.[12]

The Building

Vernon stonework

In 1883 [13]

Newly appointed Government Architect, [13]

Vernon's building, housing eight daylight lit courts, was built in four stages. The first stage was commenced in 1896 and opened in May 1897. By 1901 the entire southern half of the building was finished. A newspaper article at the time noted:

Only one wing of the building, about one fourth of the whole structure, is at present completed, and gives rich promise of future beauty. The style is early Greek. The façade is built of thracyte and [13]
Old court by Vernon
Main court with a ceiling hung work titled 'Rally 2014' by Nike Savvas (2014)

Vernon proposed that his oval lobby lead into an equally imposing Central Court. His plans were not accepted. Until 1969 his lobby led, by a short descent from the entrance level, to the three ‘temporary’ northern galleries designed by Hunt.[13]

In 1909 the front of the Gallery was finished and after this date nothing more was built of Vernon's designs. In the 1930s plans were suggested for the completion of this part of the Gallery but the [13]

In 1968 the [13]

The architecture of the Captain Cook wing did not attempt to clone the classical style of Vernon’s design. Andersons’ design philosophy was akin to that espoused by Robert Venturi in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, as Andersons explains:
He [Venturi] argued the case for richer and more complex forms of architectural expression - for 'the juxtaposition of old and new' for dramatic visual impact, rather than striving for unity and consistency in architecture that conventional precepts then dictated.[14]

In the Captain Cook wing Andersons divided new from old with a wide strip of skylights in the main entry court. While in the old courts there was parquetry flooring, travertine flooring was employed in the new galleries for both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The modern need for flexibility in display layout was answered by the use of track lighting and precast ceiling panels designed to support a system of demountable walls. While the new galleries were painted off white, senior curator, Daniel Thomas, advocated a rich Victorian colour scheme to display the Gallery’s 19th century paintings in Vernon’s grand courts.[14]

Sixteen years later the 1988 Bicentennial extension was built on The Domain parkland sloping steeply to the east. Within the constraints of two large [13]

A new space for Asian art was built to add to the existing Asian art gallery immediately below. Backlit translucent external cladding glows at night and has been dubbed the "light box". This addition was coupled with other alterations: a new temporary exhibition space on the top level, new conservation studios, an outward expansion of the café overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay, a new restaurant with dedicated function area, a theatrette and relocation of the gallery shop. Design was by Sydney architect Richard Johnson.


Indigenous art display (2011)
Departure of the Orient - Circular Quay, Charles Conder (1888)
Samuel Peploe Still life - apples and jar (1912-1916) (from the Gallery's collection)
The Anatomy Class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts François Sallé, (1888)

In 1871 the collection started with the acquisition by The Art Society of some large works from Europe such as Ford Madox Brown's Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. Later they bought work from Australian artists such as Streeton's 1891 Fire's On, Roberts' 1894 The Golden Fleece and McCubbin's 1896 On the Wallaby Track.

In 2014 the collection is categorised into:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

The collection represents Indigenous artists from communities across Australia. The earliest work in the collection, by Tommy McRae, dates from the late 19th century. Included in the collection are desert paintings created by small family groups living on remote Western Desert outstations, bark paintings of the saltwater people of coastal communities and the new media expressions of ‘blak city culture’ by contemporary artists.[1]

Asian art

The first works to enter the collection in 1879 were a large group of ceramics and bronzes – a gift from the Government of Japan following the Sydney International Exhibition that year. The Asian collections after grown from that beginning to be wide-ranging, embracing the countries and cultures of South, Southeast and East Asia.[1]

Australian art

The collection dates from the early 1800s, and includes many iconic paintings and sculpture from the annals of Australian art history. 19th-century Australian artists represented include: [1]

20th-century Australian artists represented include: Arthur Boyd, Rupert Bunny, Grace Cossington Smith, H. H. Calvert, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, James Gleeson, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Margaret Preston, Hugh Ramsay, Lloyd Rees, Imants Tillers, J. W. Tristram, Roland Wakelin, Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams and Blamire Young.[1]

Forty four works held at the gallery were included in the 1973 edition of 100 Masterpieces of Australian Painting.[15]

Contemporary art

The contemporary collection is international, encompassing Asian and Western as well as Australian art in all media. With the gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection, the Gallery now holds arguably Australia’s most comprehensive representation of contemporary art from the 1960s to the present day. Internationally, the focus is on the influence of conceptual art, nouveau realisme, minimalism and arte povera. The Australian contemporary art collection focuses on abstract painting, expressionism, screen culture and pop art.[1]

Pacific art

The collection of art from the Pacific region began in 1962 at the instigation of our then deputy director, Tony Tuckson. Between 1968 and 1977, the Gallery acquired over 500 works from the Moriarty Collection, one of the largest and most important private collections of New Guinea Highlands art in the world.[1]


The photography collection has major holdings of a wide variety of artists including Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Fiona Hall, Micky Allan, Mark Johnson, Max Pam and Lewis Morley. As well as contemporary photography, Australian pictorialism, modernism and postwar photo documentary is represented by the Sydney Camera Circle, Max Dupain and David Moore. The evolution of 19th-century Australian photography is represented with emphasis on the work of Charles Bayliss and Kerry & Co. International photographs include English pictorialism and the European avant grade (Bauhaus, constructivism and surrealism). Photo-documentary in 20th-century America is reflected through the work of Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange among others. Contemporary Asian practices are represented by artists such as Yasumasa Morimura and Miwa Yanagi. Styles range from the formal aesthetics of early photography to the informal snapshots of Weegee to the high fashion of Helmut Newton and Bettina Rheims.[1]

Western art

The gallery has an extensive collection of British Victorian art, including major works by Lord Frederic Leighton and Sir Edward John Poynter. It has smaller holdings of Dutch, French and Italian painters of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Canaletto, Bronzino, Domenico Beccafumi and Niccolò dell'Abbate. These works hang in the Grand Courts along with works by Eugène Delacroix, John Constable, Ford Madox Brown, Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro.[1]

British art of the 20th century occupies a significant place in the collection together with major European figures such as [1]

Temporary exhibitions

Amida celestial Buddha

Around 40 temporary exhibitions are held each year; some with an entry charge. In addition to one off exhibitions, the gallery hosts the long running Archibald Prize, the most prominent Australian art prize, along with the Sulman, Wynne and the Dobell art prizes, among others. the Gallery also exhibits ARTEXPRESS, a yearly showcase of Higher School Certificate Visual Arts Examination artworks from across New South Wales.[1]

Brett Whiteley Studio

The Brett Whiteley Studio at 2 Raper Street, Surry Hills was the workplace and home of Australian artist Brett Whiteley (1939–92). Since 1995 it has been managed as a museum by the Art Gallery of NSW.[1]



Gallery educators produce a diverse range of resources for the primary, secondary and tertiary education audiences linked to the collection and major exhibitions.[1]

Volunteer guides

Gallery guides provide tours of the collection and exhibitions to visitors, including school groups, Gallery members, corporate clients and VIPs.[1]


Gallery conservators undertake projects to safeguard artworks by preventing, slowing down, remedying or reversing decay and damage while ensuring artworks are safely displayed, stored or transported.[1]

Public programs

The Gallery has a program of talks, films, performances, courses and workshops as well as programs designed to increase access for people with special needs.[1]


Bicentennial Wing - contemporary art spaces at the escalators (2014)
  • Café
  • Restaurant
  • Library and archive
  • Study room
  • Gallery Shop
  • Centenary Auditorium - 90 seats
  • Domain Theatre - 339 seats

Gallery Directors


The Art Gallery of NSW is a statutory body established under the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act (1980) and is a body aligned with NSW Trade & Investment. Led by a Board of Trustees, the Gallery also provides administrative support for several other entities, each with its own legal structure: the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation, VisAsia, Brett Whiteley Foundation and Art Gallery Society of NSW.[1]

The Board of Trustees has nine members plus a President and Vice President. An Executive is composed of the Gallery Director, Deputy Directory, and three senior staff members. The Art Gallery of NSW Foundation is the Gallery’s major acquisition fund and the umbrella organisation for all the Gallery benefactor groups and funds. It raises money from donations and bequests, invests this capital and then uses the income to purchase works of art for the collection. VisAsia, the Australian Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts, was established to promote Asian arts and culture. It includes both the VisAsia Council and individual membership. The Brett Whiteley Foundation, promotes and encourages knowledge and appreciation of the work of the late Brett Whiteley. The Art Gallery Society of NSW is the Gallery’s membership organisation. Its objectives are to enhance members’ enjoyment of art, and to raise funds for the Gallery’s collection. The Society is a separate legal entity, controlled and operated by the Society Council and members.[1]

Popular culture

At the start of the film Sirens, Hugh Grant walks past paintings in the Art Gallery of NSW, including Spring Frost by Elioth Gruner, The Golden Fleece (1894) by Tom Roberts, Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide (1890) by Arthur Streeton, Bailed Up (1895) by Tom Roberts, and Chaucer at the Court of Edward III (1847–51) by Ford Madox Brown.



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah Art Gallery of New South Wales website
  2. ^ Russell, Roslyn (2008). "Eliezer Montefiore - From Barbados to Sydney". National Library of Australia news. December 2008 (p.13): 11–14. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  3. ^ "Act No 54 (1899) Library and Art Gallery". Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII). Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Stuart, Geoff (1993). Secrets in stone: discover the history of Sydney. Surry Hills, Sydney: Brandname Properties. pp. 119–120.  
  5. ^ "Art Gallery of New South Wales Act (Act No. 1 1958)". Australasian Legal Information Institute (Austlii). Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  6. ^ "Art Gallery of New South Wales Act 1980". Australasian Legal Information Institute (Austlii). Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  7. ^ "Art Crime Alert Masterwork Stolen in Australia". Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (USA). 30 July 2007. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  8. ^ Jinman R., Morgan C. Dutch master stolen The Sydney Morning Herald 14 June 2007.
  9. ^ Taylor, Andrew (20 May 2012). "Search for stolen masterpiece ends".  
  10. ^ Barlow, Karen NSW Gallery Defends Security System after theft of 17th century artwork ABC The World Today, 14 June 2007. Accessed on 14 June 2007
  11. ^ Morgan, Clare (3 August 2011). "Capon confirms retirement".  
  12. ^ Ruiz, Cristina (Issue 248, July–August 2013 (Published online: 02 August 2013)). "Sydney art gallery sizes up its future". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Art Gallery of New South Wales: The Building
  14. ^ a b Maisy Stapleton, ed. (1987). Australia's first parliament, Parliament House, New South Wales (2nd ed.). Sydney, NSW: Parliament NSW. pp. 72–75.  
  15. ^ Works cited in the document '100 masterpieces of Australian painting (1973)', Art Gallery of New South Wales. Retrieved on 9 January 2011.
  16. ^ A marble portrait bust of E.L. Montefiore by Theodora Cowan is in the gallery's collection.
  17. ^ Fortescue, Elizabeth (10 February 2012). "Australian Dr Michael Brand is the new director for the Art Gallery of NSW". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-02-10. 

External links

  • AGNSW site
  • "Art Gallery of New South Wales". History and Archives: Historic Buildings. City of Sydney. 2004. Retrieved 2010-03-28. 
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales Artabase page

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