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History of the Art Gallery of NSW

The beginnings of the Gallery date back to the 1800s.

In the 1870s an Academy of Art was established in Sydney ‘for the purpose of promoting fine arts through lecture, art classes and regular exhibitions’ and, with funds made available by government, acquired the first artworks for the Gallery.

The collection as it developed had several homes but in 1885 it was moved to the present site. The façade and old wing of the building we know now were built between 1896 and 1909, with new extensions opened in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the history of the Gallery is much more complicated – and interesting – than that…

How it began

1870 was a year of violent unrest in Europe. It saw the start of the Franco-Prussian War and a revolution in Paris which lead to the proclamation of the Third Republic. Italian troops occupied Papal Rome, making the ageing Pius IX a prisoner of the Vatican. These turbulent events set off a ripple of sensation even in far away Australia. At the first ‘Conversazione’ or artistic soirée of the New South Wales Academy of Art on 7 August 1871, much of the talk was of recent European turmoil. The Louvre, used for a time as an arsenal, had suffered a dreadful fire. Eliezer Montefiore, a founding member of the Academy, passed around photographs of the shattered ruins of its buildings on the evening of the Conversazione. The animated rhetoric of the night touched on the possibility of a young Australia having to carry the torch of culture, even as Europe degenerated into chaos. It is a theme which has been rehashed throughout Australian history. These events fuelled a budding local resolve to establish an Academy of Art “for the purpose of promoting the fine arts through lectures, art classes and regular exhibitions”. Yet cultural idealism was only one contributing factor to the series of events which lead to the foundation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Sydney v Melbourne

Traditional rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne was just as important. The fact that Melbourne had established an art gallery in 1861 riled Sydneysiders, who believed that their city should possess a collection of art worthy of the Mother Colony of Australia. Yet few of Sydney’s affluent citizens seemed willing to support such a project. All but a hundred years of British colonisation had brought to the city a degree of economic prosperity, but little cultural wealth. The ten men appointed officers of the new Academy of Art thought it time to re-invest some of the national resources in civilising endeavours like art. They hoped that the foundation of an Art Academy would elevate the city beyond bucolic and mercantile pursuits. Sydney Punch reviewed the formation of the Academy under the legend ‘Emollit mores nec sinit esse ferus’, Ovid’s assertion that the study of the liberal arts ‘humanises character and permits it not to be cruel’.

Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore has described the crude and insecure social face of Sydney at the time. The founders of the Gallery were all men who genuinely believed in the ennobling power of art. They freely gave their time and money in support of this belief. Most were businessmen or public figures who served the interests of a variety of cultural, religious and educational institutions in the colony.

The precise date on which the Art Gallery was founded is debatable. Which event constitutes a formal foundation? The birth of an art society from whose activities and members the Gallery emerged, the Government vote of funds towards the formation of a public collection or the provision of a physical home for this collection? Each of these events occurred quite separately. Administratively, however, the Gallery owes its genesis to the New South Wales Academy of Art.