We’re lucky to have one of Australia’s oldest and most significant cultural institutions – the Art Gallery of New South Wales – on our doorstep.

With a collection of more than 36,000 artworks, including pieces by luminaries such as Picasso, Cezanne, Monet and Australia’s own Brett Whiteley and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, there’s no doubt that the Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of our most important cultural institutions. Better yet, it’s only a stone’s throw from Potts Point. We find out how the Art Gallery came to be and get the lowdown on its brand-new building.

Humble beginnings

The Art Gallery of New South Wales began life in 1871 when a group of art lovers formed a society called the New South Wales Academy of Art to support and promote artists and art. Three years later, the group were given £500 by the government to buy art for a national collection. Predictably enough, the first works acquired were by English artists, but in 1875 the first Australian work (Aspley Falls by Conrad Martens) was added to the collection. The same year the Academy rented Clark’s New Assembly Hall, a former dance hall, on Elizabeth Street to exhibit their fledgling collection. The new gallery was open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons.

A new home

In 1879, the International Exhibition came to Sydney, and with it, the Gallery’s first dedicated building. The Fine Arts Annexe, a basic structure of timber and steel erected near the Woolloomooloo entrance to the Botanic Gardens, opened to the public on 10 November 1879. When the Exhibition closed in 1880, the building was given to the Academy and officially declared the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The Gallery moves to its present site

In 1884, recognising the Gallery’s need for a more permanent structure, Parliament confirmed that a new art gallery would be built in the southeast corner of the Domain. The simple brick building with a sawtooth corrugated iron roof was opened by the governor on 23 December 1885. Unkindly nicknamed the ‘art barn’ for its rudimentary appearance, this building nonetheless remained in situ until around 1969, when it was demolished to make way for the Captain Cook Wing.

The art temple

Eleven years later, in 1896, construction began on the gallery’s iconic ‘temple to art’ building. Designed by Walter Liberty Vernon, the building was ‘as strictly classical as possible’, as per the instructions from the Gallery’s trustees. It stood in front of the ‘art barn’ and wasn’t completed until 1909.

In 1899, in response to a suggestion from sculptor Percival Ball, the Gallery’s trustees decided the empty spaces on the gallery’s façade should be filled with bronze sculptural panels illustrating ‘distinctive historical art periods.’ They chose the Assyrian, Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, Gothic and Renaissance eras. Only four panels (Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome) were completed.

Above the sculptural panels on the building’s facade are the names of famous artists rendered in bronze. They were chosen by Frederick Eccleston Du Faur, one of the Gallery’s founders and President of its trustees from 1892 to 1915. Never intended as an advertisement of the works one might find inside; instead, the names were meant to be an aspirational catalogue of art’s brightest stars. Over the years, the names have attracted criticism, and there were calls for them to be removed as late as 1965. The Gallery’s trustees agreed that they should be replaced with the names of notable Australian artists, but because deciding which artists should be included was an impossible task, it never happened.

The Archibald is born

The gallery attracted more than 300,000 visitors over a 25-day period in 1906 to see a painting called The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt. That was more than half of Sydney’s population, which in 1906 was 538,800. Painted between 1851 and 1854, The Light of the World is considered the most culturally influential depiction of Jesus Christ of its time.

The Archibald Prize, administered by the trustees of the Gallery and today Australia’s most prestigious portrait prize, was first awarded in 1921. The inaugural winner was W.B. McInnes for his painting of architect Harold Desbrowe Annear. In 1938 the prize was won by a woman for the first time when Nora Heysen took first place with her portrait Mme Elink Schuurman. The same year, electric light was temporarily installed in the gallery to allow it to open at night for the first time.

A much-needed makeover

By the 1960s, the gallery was tired and worn out, making its rejuvenation the perfect choice of memorial project to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing in Australia in 1970. Young government architect Andrew Andersons delivered his design for the new wing in 1968. Like the Opera House, the construction of the Captain Cook Wing was hampered by industrial action and wet weather, and it wasn’t ready in time for the memorial date of 22 August 1970. Instead, it opened on 2 May 1972. It drew plenty of praise and was awarded the 1975 Sulman Award for Architectural Merit. The same year the Gallery hosted the first of its modern blockbusters, attracting 180,000 visitors over 29 days to see Modern Masters: Monet to Matisse.

Andersons was called upon once again to design the Gallery’s new Australian Bicentennial Wing, which opened in 1988. This extension’s four storeys increased the Gallery’s space by half. More major renovations followed in 2003, with the addition of a new Asian gallery, and in 2011, when a basement storage area was transformed into 3,300 square metres of exhibition space.

Breaking records

A show of Man Ray’s works in 2004 set a record for photography exhibitions at the Gallery when it drew more than 52,000 visitors. Three years later, in 2007, a 17th-century painting by Frans van Mieris called A Cavalier (Self-Portrait) was stolen from the Gallery. To this day, it has not been recovered, and it remains on the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list. Then, in 2008, the Gallery purchased Bords de la Marne, a painting by Paul Cezanne, for $16.2 million – the most it has ever paid for an artwork.

In 2012, the Gallery drew its largest-ever number of visitors to see a single exhibition when almost 365,000 people attended Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris. In 2020, the Archibald Prize was awarded to an Indigenous artist for the first time when Vincent Namatjira won for his portrait of former AFL player Adam Goodes.

The Sydney Modern Project

In December 2022, the doors opened on the Art Gallery’s newest building, dubbed by Premier Dominic Perottet as ‘the most significant cultural build since the Opera House’. The as-yet-unnamed new building almost doubles the Gallery’s exhibition space. Designed by Tokyo-based architectural firm SANAA, the new building features a showcase gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art (the Yiribana Gallery), an underground gallery made from a converted World War II naval fuel tank, a major column-free exhibition space, and a gallery for video and VR art. It’s the first Australian public art museum with a 6-star Green Star design rating, powered completely by renewable energy and featuring solar panels, rainwater capture and harvesting, and more than 8,000 square metres of green roof and landscaped areas planted with Australian natives. The Gallery’s expansion also heralded the largest commissioning project in the Gallery’s history, including nine major site-specific works by Australian and international artists.

Thinking about buying in Potts Point or Sydney’s east and making the Art Gallery part of your backyard? Get in touch today.

Article by Jason Boon

In a real estate market that is the focus of Australian, and indeed worldwide attention, Jason Boon's results in the Sydney scene make him a highly significant figure within the industry. A long-term specialist in the Potts Point and inner eastern suburbs area, he is uniquely placed to leverage his skills and local knowledge as the area undergoes significant change and diversification. Jason ha…