As a national public art museum, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is one of the largest art museums in Australia. Featuring Australian, Indigenous and international art, the Gallery is one of the most important institutes as it represents both Australia modern art period and gives a glimpse of international art movements from the same era. The works of Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, and Hockney, among others, are a few examples of its world-class collection. In addition to the galleries, the sculpture gardens host artwork by Fujiko Nakaya, Henry Moore, August Rodin and James Turrell.
The idea for a museum that would feature Australian artists dates back to the early 1900s. The actions of Tom Roberts, one of Australia’s most well-known artists who had campaigned for the museum, led to the Historic Memorials Committee (predecessor of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board) which acquired art until 1973. Until the early 1960s, art was exhibited in the Parliament House, in Commonwealth offices and state galleries. In 1965, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board succeed in persuading Prime Minister Robert Menzies to create a gallery that would host the art that had been collected.
In 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced the construction of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. One year later, Colin Madigan from Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Partners won the architectural competition. Construction began in 1974 and ended in 1982. J.J. Sweeny, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was appointed as a consultant to help with displays and artwork storage.
While the permanent site was still being finalized, the initial location was at Capital Hill where, in 1974, Parliament voted to locate its own building. After other considerations, the Gallery found its location, Lake Burley Griffin. The lakeside position of the Gallery, located near the High Court of Australia, gave a new dynamic to the area as it forms part of the Parliamentary Triangle alongside the Parliament in the south and the National Library of Australia in the north-west. The legislation instituting the National Gallery of Australia went before Parliament in 1971 and the National Gallery Act was passed in 1975.
The National Gallery of Australia was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on October 12, 1982. The building was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (ACT) Canberra Medallion the same year.
As a building, the National Gallery is designed in the Brutalist style, which is characterized by massive raw concrete surfaces that are quite imposing. Many of the walls are made of reinforced bush-hammered concrete, following Madigan’s philosophy that “concrete has as much integrity as stone”. This monotony is broken by the big sculpture gardens that surround it filled with native plants and trees, which give the eyes of the visitors a breath of fresh air. The geometry of the building is quite obvious as its triangular form is also passed on in other elements inside the building.
With 23,000 m2 of floor space, the building is flexible to host different sizes of artwork with adequate storage and exhibition room. The building, in general, can facilitate all kinds of art since it uses state-of-the-art technology. The temperature is maintained at 22-23 degrees Celsius with 55% of relative humidity. Its air filtration has the ability to remove up to 85% of all dust particles down to one micron. The exhibition is hosted on three levels each different in style. The entrance level, with its large cathedral-like rooms, is used for presenting the Indigenous art collection, the International art collection, and major focus exhibitions. The upper level, with galleries smaller in size and parquetry floor, contains the main focus exhibitions on the National Gallery's Australian artwork collection. The lower level, just like the entrance level, has high ceilings that now contain the Asian art collection.
The Gallery has been extended twice. First, in 1997, a building on the eastern side was added to feature new temporary exhibitions. It was designed by Andrew Andersons and also included a sculptural garden designed by Fiona Hall. Over a decade later, in 2006, it was announced by the Australian government that it would provide funding to enhance and extend the Gallery’s building. This new project concerned a new entrance surrounded by large gardens designed by Adrian McGregor and Stage 1 of the Indigenous galleries. The materials used came from all around Australia and included ironbark, slate, granite and white and red marble.
The National Gallery of Australia is a monumental building that leaves visitors flabbergasted. The collection that it houses both inside the building and outside in the garden is an exceptional sample of not only Australian art, but also international as well.