The Gallery is founded as the New South Wales Academy of Art in 1871. Its earliest activities include exhibitions and public programs. Works of art are purchased from 1874, and, in the following year, temporary premises are leased on Elizabeth Street. The collection is open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons.
The Gallery’s first dedicated building is constructed in 1879 as part of the Sydney International Exhibition. Situated in the Botanic Garden, ‘The Fine Arts Annexe’, as it is known, consists of three long galleries designed by architect William Wardell.
The Fine Arts Annexe is rededicated as the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1880, at a ceremony presided over by the Governor. In these founding years, the focus of the collection is contemporary Australian, Asian and international art. When fire destroys the adjacent Garden Palace in 1882, the trustees call for a fireproof gallery more centrally located.
The Gallery’s current site in the Domain is confirmed after extensive debate, and a simple structure is opened to the public in 1885. Designed by the Gallery’s first architect, John Horbury Hunt, it resembles a factory and is dubbed the ‘art barn’.
The ‘art barn’ becomes a popular Sydney destination and while the public is eager to see the building finished, it takes more than ten years before agreement is reached on its design. Hunt has all his schemes rejected as too grand or out of keeping with the parkland setting of the Domain. He is controversially replaced by government architect Walter Liberty Vernon.
Construction on the Gallery, to Vernon’s design, commences in 1896. Despite funding pressure, the government remains committed to the project as an important symbol of civic pride. In 1902, the Minister of Public Instruction is dramatically hoisted in the air to set the apex stone in the pediment above the portico.
The architect’s designs for the Gallery include a wing facing the harbour and a grand entrance court. These are never built. Financial constraints lead to work stopping after 1909, with only a quarter of the building and the facade completed. No major construction is undertaken for another 60 years.
Plans for the Gallery’s exterior include relief panels in the facade and free-standing statuary. English sculptor Gilbert Bayes is commissioned to design a pair of equestrian bronzes. Painted mock-ups are placed on pedestals at the beginning of 1924. But when the first statue arrives, it is repositioned so as not to compromise the simplicity of the portico.
Concern for the care of collections in Sydney’s sub-tropical climate leads to a conservation studio being built at the rear of the Gallery. The first dedicated laboratory of its kind in Australia, its state- of-the-art facilities enable the Gallery to become a national leader in art conservation.
War-time concern over the navy’s limited fuel-storage capacity for the fleet base at Garden Island results in oil tanks being built into the landscape on the eastern side of the Domain in Woolloomooloo. Constructed under secrecy at the time, the underground tanks are decommissioned in the 1980s.
The 1958 Art Gallery of New South Wales Act modifies how the Gallery is governed and changes its official name after nearly 60 years, dropping ‘National’ and giving the institution a greater state-wide focus. An ambitious regional travelling art scheme brings key works from the collection to every major town in NSW.
Construction on the Cahill Expressway, the first freeway to be built in Australia, begins in 1955, despite widespread criticism of the way it damages the spatial relationships between the Botanic Garden, Domain and Gallery. An elevated section of the expressway opens in 1958 and a sunken section in 1962.
Work on a new wing of the Gallery, supported by government and philanthropic funding, commences in 1968. The Sulman Award-winning extension, designed by architect Andrew Andersons, transforms the way the Gallery operates and displays its collection.
A gallery of Aboriginal and Melanesian art opens in 1973, the first such space within an Australian art museum. Installed at the entrance are tutini, or Pukumani grave posts, by Bob Apuatimi, Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua and Charlie Kwangdini, originally commissioned in 1958. Heralding a shift in tradition, the artists made the decision to produce these tutini for a wider audience.
A new extension to the Gallery by architect Andrew Andersons provides more display space for the permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, a 300-seat theatre and a new expanded gallery for Asian art. The architect is praised for the way the conjunctions between the 1972 and 1988 developments are made so discreet that visitors are unaware of them.
A dedicated gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is opened within the new extension. It is called Yiribana, meaning ‘this way’ in the Eora language. Yiribana builds on the Gallery’s pioneering work in collecting and displaying Australian Aboriginal art, which saw it appoint the first curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Djon Mundine, ten years earlier.
The NSW Government opens a land bridge over the Cahill Expressway. After some controversy and substantial modifications, the final design includes a parkland canopy over the freeway. This partially reunites the Botanic Garden, Domain and Gallery.
A new Asian art gallery, designed by architect Richard Johnson is opened, evoking aspects of Asian culture with references to a lantern and a pavilion. The development is part of a wider building project that includes alterations to the original Asian art gallery, new exhibition space, conservation studios, a cafe, restaurant and function area with spectacular harbour views.
In 2008 John Kaldor and his family make a gift of over 200 major international works of art. With the relocation of its storage facility off-site, the Gallery opens a new floor of contemporary galleries in 2011 featuring the John Kaldor Family Gallery and the Belgiorno-Nettis Family Galleries.
Construction commences on a new standalone building by Japanese architects SANAA. Highlights include a prominent gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, a large gallery for major exhibitions, dedicated studios for education and community programs, and a unique gallery space in a former WWII oil tank. A public art garden will link the new and existing buildings.
Transforming for the future
Celebrating our 150th anniversary in 2021, we remain committed to making art a vital part of everyday life. Our buildings have evolved to celebrate the art of the time.
The Sydney Modern Project looks to the future, supporting the display and enjoyment of art in all its forms, as well as providing rich and diverse experiences for all our visitors.