Education Department Art Gallery

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Education Department Art Gallery

Just before the start of World War I, the New South Wales state government decided to build a spacious gallery for the use of art societies on the top floor of the new Department of Education building at Bridge Street, near Circular Quay. From its formal opening in October 1915 up to the mid-1960s, the Education Department Art Gallery was one of the best known public art venues in Sydney. In recent decades the space has been used exclusively by the Department of Education, and is now known as the William Wilkins Gallery.

During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a growing interest in Australian art and crafts. Many creative people undertook art training and joined local art societies. With the construction of the new headquarters for the Department of Public Instruction at 35–39 Bridge Street, the state government decided to include a spacious modern art gallery as a suitable venue for art society groups. Seemingly an afterthought, the decision to include a gallery was announced halfway through the construction of the building, by the Minister for Public Instruction, Campbell Carmichael, in February 1914. Leading members of the Sydney art community were consulted by the government architects about suitable lighting, hanging and access arrangements.

Opening the new gallery

The Education Department Art Gallery opened its doors in early October 1915. The completed gallery on the top floor of the Bridge Street building consisted of two large rooms, the main gallery being 29 metres by 10.5 metres while a smaller gallery was 11 metres by 13.5 metres. The high-sided walls were lit from above by opaque glazed windows. Access to the venue from the Loftus Street entrance was by lift and stairs.

The first group to use the gallery was the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, who had previously used their own rooms at Vickery's Chambers in Pitt Street. The Royal Art Society's main rival, the Society of Artists, initially continued to use their own premises in the Queen Victoria Building for annual shows, but from 1918 they too switched to the new gallery.

From the end of World War I to the late 1950s the Education Department Art Gallery was regularly used by art societies, art schools and charity groups for major exhibitions, displays and events. The main groups that used the gallery were the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society, Australian Watercolour Institute, Contemporary Art Society, Royal Art Society of NSW, Society of Arts and Crafts, and the Society of Artists. Although exhibitions were dominated by art societies, there were also solo shows by prominent artists such as Penleigh Boyd and Arthur Streeton.

The 1939 Australian Art Annual, published by Sydney Ure Smith, mentioned the venue:

The Department of Education has a gallery in which the various Art Societies may arrange to hold exhibitions from time to time – exhibitions which have proved very beneficial in advancing the interests of the societies and bringing the work of the members before the public... The principal annual exhibitions of the NSW Art Societies are always held in the Gallery, which makes no charge to them for rental.

In 1958 the Department of Education took control of the smaller of the two galleries for its own purposes. The then President of the Society of Artists, Douglas Dundas, complained about the new space restrictions, and threatened to find another venue for their future exhibitions. The Society of Artists, like several other groups, tried other venues but by 1961 it was exhibiting back at the Education Department's Gallery. The next President of the Society of Artists, Lloyd Rees, while empathising with the Education Department needs, expressed his group's displeasure:

Of the Department's need for the space there can be no doubt and it has our sympathy and understanding, but when one reflects upon the fact that the full area of the TWO galleries was available to the Art bodies as far back as 1918 and was sometimes too small for our needs in those far-off days, it will readily be seen that the position today verges on the desperate. [1]

Despite the restrictions, the Education Department's Gallery was regularly used by Sydney's art groups up to the mid-1960s. While there was a boom in Australian art during this decade, there was a decline in local art society activity which saw the winding up of the Society of Artists, while the Royal Art Society relocated its annual exhibitions to its new gallery in North Sydney. The last known art society exhibition held at the gallery was the Australian Watercolour Institute's annual exhibition in August 1969.

A gallery for schools

Perhaps embarrassed by its well-known asset, the Department of Education made no mention of the gallery in a 1989 pictorial history of the Bridge Street building. [2] Despite this, the exhibition space still operates as an art gallery, although exhibitions are restricted to displays of art by New South Wales school students. Reflecting the change from a publicly accessible gallery to a space exclusively controlled by the department, the institution is now known as the William Wilkins Gallery, named in honour of a prominent nineteenth-century New South Wales educationalist. Despite major internal structural changes to the Bridge Street building, the William Wilkins Gallery still retains its original design and fittings.

Notes

[1] Lloyd Rees, 'Foreword', Spring Exhibition Catalogue, Society of Artists, Sydney, 1961

[2] Danuta Kozaki, Bridge Street and Education – A Pictorial History, NSW Department of School Education, Sydney, 1989

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