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National Gallery of Victoria

Any 19th-century city worthy of its salt in the Western world had at its heart a museum/public library/art gallery complex. One of the strongest motivations of the early colonists was their belief in progress and in the value of education. For them, such cultural institutions were believed to be active conductors of sound civic values and should, although assisted by private donations, survive on the public purse.

Melbourne presents an outstanding example of this thinking in the foundation and development of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) - the name still clung to tenaciously more than 150 years and many cultural fashions later. Under the guidance of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe and leading political and judicial figures Hugh Culling Childers and Redmond Barry, a Public Library was founded in 1851. The first building constructed on the site bounded by Swanston, La Trobe, Russell and Little La Trobe streets, it was designed by architect Joseph Reed. At its opening in 1859 the government granted £2000 for the purchase of works of art.

This first purchase was left in the hands of the chief trustee, Redmond Barry, a well-read product of a classical education which he believed should also be made available to the citizens of Victoria. He acquired a large collection of casts of well-known Graeco-Roman statues, seals, reliefs and other classical artefacts which, displayed in the latest museological manner, produced only puzzlement and frustration. Preferring the visual, mass audiences campaigned for Melbourne to have its own picture collection.

The creation of the NGV was the direct outcome of the findings of the Fine Arts Commission. Established as a result of public pressure in 1863, it handed down reports in 1864 and 1865. Once the decision had been made to collect paintings, a new debate arose as to what paintings should be acquired - historical works, copies of Old Masters or contemporary works of art? The last category won the day, but to forestall any criticism the commissioners appointed Sir Charles Estlake, director of the London National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy, to make the selection. So began a tradition of relying on overseas, usually English, advisers to select the Gallery's works of art.

The first director and head of the School of Painting, created as an integral part of the complex, was Eugène von Guérard, an Austrian-born landscapist who had resided in the colony since 1851. He was succeeded by George Folingsby, an Irish-born German-trained history painter who was to have an important influence on such first-generation Australian artists as Frederick McCubbin and John Longstaff. The acquisition of artworks was largely in the hands of the trustees and their overseas advisers until the appointment of English-born Lindsay Bernard Hall as director in 1892. Wresting control back somewhat, Hall put his distinctive stamp on the collection over the period of his 40-year reign. With the Felton Bequest monies becoming available, the size and range of the collection altered beyond recognition. The Gallery School remained perhaps Australia's most prestigious art education school, although its importance waned with the acceptance of modernism in the 1930s.

Because of its prestige and the growing authority of its collection, the NGV was central to Melbourne's 20th-century cultural life. Hall was conservative as was his successor, James Stewart MacDonald, who had trained as an artist in Paris at the turn of the century but had given up the practice for art administration. He abhorred modernism in any form and was responsible for the Gallery refusing to acquire French masterpieces of the impressionist and postimpressionist periods.

In 1945 the Trust, which had conducted the affairs of the Library, the Science Museum and the Gallery, was split into three separate bodies. Daryl Lindsay, who had replaced MacDonald in 1941, formed a progressive partnership with the new chairman of trustees of the Gallery, Keith Murdoch, and together they ushered in a dynamic period, acquiring Australian art of the Heidelberg School period and beyond, and making cautious forays into modernism. In 1956 Lindsay was succeeded by Eric Westbrook, whose enthusiastic support of modern art is reflected in the number of British and European works of the 1950s and early 1960s that entered the collection.

Westbrook presided over the Gallery's move from Swanston Street to the newly designed complex on St Kilda Road which opened in 1968. For the first time the range and diversity of the collection could be displayed. The next decade saw unprecedented public support for the Gallery, culminating in the years under director Patrick McCaughey when the NGV - even the theft of the Weeping Woman, its newly acquired Picasso - became the most talked about institution in Melbourne.

Growth brought its own problems, and on McCaughey's departure the Gallery was beset by a series of short-term directors and a loss of vision. The Gallery School amalgamated with the Victorian College of the Arts in the 1980s. However, support from the Kennett Government permitted a major restructure for the NGV. Under new director Dr Gerard Vaughan it closed for three years from late 1999 and was reconfigured on two sites. The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia at Federation Square which housed the Australian collection, opened in November 2002 in a dedicated section of the new Peter Davidson-LAB Architecture building. NGV International, the 1968 Roy Grounds building now redesigned and enlarged by Milan-based architect Mario Bellini, reopened on 4 December 2003.

Ann Galbally

Galbally, Ann, The collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987. Details