In 2021, as it celebrates its 150th anniversary, this has been more than rectified with the publication of The Exhibitionists, a page-turning, bold and painstakingly researched account of our state art museum.
Generously illustrated, The Exhibitionists not only tells the story of the people and art that have made the Art Gallery what it is today, it is also a social history of the city and country where it is located.
Head archivist Steven Miller, who has a 30-year association with the Art Gallery, is uniquely qualified as a guide through this colourful cultural landscape.
Mapping the highs and lows of the Art Gallery’s unwavering commitment to bringing art to the people of Australia, Miller reveals the behind-the-scenes dramas, as well as the public debates in parliament, that have shaped the evolving role of the Art Gallery in public life as it has negotiated the shifting expectations of audiences, politicians, benefactors, media and the artists at the heart of the institution.
Dedicated Art Gallery directors have each left their mark on the art museum and Miller tracks these chronologically and thematically in The Exhibitionists: from Eliezer Montefiore, the first Jewish director of an Australian cultural institution, through to the charismatic Edmund Capon, and then the current director, art scholar Michael Brand, who is leading the Art Gallery through arguably the most significant change and growth in its history.
As the Art Gallery looks forward to this new era, The Exhibitionists is a timely and lively celebration of the journey thus far.
“Since becoming the ninth director in 2012 I’ve continued to consider the extraordinary history of our beloved state art museum as I lead the Sydney Modern Project expansion. The planning of a successful future relies on a deep understanding of our rich and complex history,” said Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand.
“I loved reading Steven’s fascinating account of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found myself feeling prouder than ever to have joined a roll call of creative people who for generations have contributed to the evolution of this special place in Sydney on Gadigal country.”
The Exhibitionists brings to light the history of an art museum in its 150th year – an anniversary also reached last year by The Metropolitan Museum, New York, one of many art museums founded in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
It is both a local story and part of a broader international one in the ways public museums develop, represent and present culture and evolve with the times.
“It has always struck me that whilst Sydney makes such a strong impression on visitors, its particular qualities are hard to pin down; an amalgam of a unique natural setting, layered with a history that reflects the passions and eccentricities of recent settlers, all in a country with a rich and long Indigenous history,” said Steven Miller.
“In many ways, the history of the Art Gallery of New South Wales shares all these ambiguities and while I’ve endeavoured to capture something of its essence, just as I have it will transform yet again, leaving future generations to reconsider its role and unique place in the imagination and life of Sydney and beyond.”
Steven Miller is head of the National Art Archive and Capon Research Library at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He has published widely on art, and his most recent books are Awakening: four lives in art (Wakefield Press, 2015) with Eileen Chanin, and Dogs in Australian art (Wakefield Press, 2nd ed, 2016).
His book Degenerates and perverts: the 1939 Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art with Eileen Chanin, won the NSW Premier’s Australian History Award in 2006.
“The Sydney Gallery has one of the finest natural positions in the world, and the Sydney folk have made the most of it. Their gallery resembles a kind of golden temple, through which are seen spaces of lovely blue harbour water. Fine light, fine pictures, fine arrangement.” – Arthur Streeton, artist, 1920
Image: The Exhibitionists: A history of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (supplied)