As an educator and a gallery director, her vision was to make people see art as accessible and relevant. As Director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997, she was affectionately known as ‘Betty Blockbuster’ for her large scale, scholarly and popular exhibitions and overseeing its rise as an institution of cultural significance, locally and internationally.
“Betty was a towering figure in the Australian art community and loved by so many,” said Gerard Vaughan, Director of the National Gallery of Australia. “She will always be remembered here with deep affection for her tireless promotion of our visual culture, including her role as a popular presenter on TV, and I am reminded daily of her contribution to the nation.”
Churcher also became the first woman director of a state art gallery when appointed to the West Australian Gallery in 1987. In 1982, she was the first female head of a tertiary institution as Dean of the School of Art and Design at Melbourne’s Phillip Institute of Technology, where she had been lecturing.
Yet as a child she felt that ‘just about everything I wanted to do, I couldn’t because I was a girl’. Born in Brisbane in 1931, she grew up in a household where her mother and grandmother focused their attention on her brother.
Despite her father’s view that education ‘spoiled a girl’, Betty won a scholarship and studied painting at London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1950s, where she met and married fellow painter Roy Churcher (who died last year). Back home, they set up a studio and art school together but Betty gave up painting after her first child.
In 1974, after completing a Master of Arts in London, she published Understanding Art, which won The Times ‘information book of the year’ award. A career in academia followed along with senior roles on the Australia Council.
Churcher dedicated her time to displaying hidden artworks and lesser known acquisitions of the National Gallery of Australia on the ABC television program, Hidden Treasures. Her books include Understanding Art, The Art of War, Treasures of Canberra, Adam & Sarah Explore Turner, and Australian Notebooks.
In recognition of her service to the arts, particularly in the field of arts administration and education, Churcher was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990, and an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1996 in recognition of service to art and to the community as Director of the Australian National Gallery. She was a National Finalist, Senior Australian of the Year in 2012.
Image: Betty Churcher