Dictionary of Sydney

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Art Gallery of New South Wales

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Art Gallery of New South Wales

[media]The Art Gallery of New South Wales came into being in 1874 with the formation of the Academy of Art, which was endowed with £500 to acquire art for a national collection. Although purchases, largely second-rate English watercolours, were made throughout the 1870s and into the early 1880s, the collection had no purpose-built home. From 1875 to 1879, works were exhibited at Clark's Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street. The International Exhibition of 1879 provided the impetus to find more suitable lodgings for the colony's fledgling collection, and until 1882 it was housed in the William Wardell-designed Fine Arts Annexe to the Garden Palace in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The 'art barn'

The present location of the gallery, overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay from the Domain, was selected in 1884, when a brick building designed by the architect John Horbury Hunt was hastily erected on the site. Although it was only ever intended as a temporary solution, much criticism was levelled at Horbury Hunt's building, the chief grievance being its rudimentary design. Labelled an 'art barn', it was derided for its thick brick walls and saw-tooth roof, which prompted calls for it to be removed or replaced. Yet it stayed until about 1969, when it was demolished to make way for a new extension to the rear of the main façade of the gallery.

The Art Gallery trustees saw their gallery functioning as a 'temple to art', which meant they preferred conservative and classical architecture. Horbury Hunt prepared three designs for a main wing between 1889 and 1895, to replace his original design, but none was accepted.

Vernon's design

In 1896, Walter Liberty Vernon's neo-Greek temple design for the main part of the gallery was accepted by the trustees. It stood in front of the early Horbury Hunt building. Constructed between 1896 and 1909, it is now referred to as the 'old wing'.

Vernon's design was conservative in style in response to the requirements set by the trustees. Although he met the restrictive brief for a classical building, Vernon's original designs, including plans for a central courtyard, were never completed.

The gallery was often referred to in Sydney as the National Art Gallery until the late 1960s, when a truly national gallery was proposed for Canberra. By then the gallery was in a poor state of repair, and it was decided to extend the building to provide more display space, and to house the growing ancillary staff, including the curatorial, conservation and education departments. The collection had gradually expanded over the twentieth century, and more space was needed to display it, particularly as curatorial practice favoured the collection and display of contemporary art, which required different, more versatile exhibition spaces.

Later extensions

The period from 1968 to 1972 saw the realisation of Vernon's desire to extend the gallery space, with the construction of the Captain Cook Bicentennial wing behind the main facade. It was designed by Andrew Andersons, of the Government Architect's Department led by EH Farmer. This extension, on the site of the 1884 building designed by Horbury Hunt, doubled the exhibition space. In 1988, an eastern wing, also designed by Andersons, was constructed in time for the Bicentennial celebrations. In 1994, the lower level of this wing was extended to form the Yiribana Gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. The most recent addition was a purpose-built wing for the Asian Art Galleries, officially opened in 2003.


Edmund Capon and Jan Meek (eds), Portrait of a Gallery, Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, c1984

Ailsa McPherson, 'Art Gallery of New South Wales: Conservation Plan, April 1992', unpublished report prepared for Department of Public Works, Sydney, 1992

Art Gallery of NSW website, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au, viewed 13 February 2009