Painter, teacher, art critic, television host, author, scriptwriter and, of course, gallery director, Betty Churcher AO undeniably had art in her veins and was equally part of the lifeblood of the visual arts in Australia.
Even in the last decade, she showed no signs of slowing down as she published five books and gave interviews and lectures around Australia. She is best remembered at the National Gallery of Australia for both her role as director and her time researching topics for her work in television and writing.
Her faith in and support of staff and her openness to new ideas characterised her approach to leadership. She demonstrated great trust in her colleagues and her commitment was returned in-kind. People were free to express ideas, and there were some radical ones; but Betty showed bravery in encouraging and challenging her staff and the public to see art in new ways. She is remembered as intelligent, charming, courteous and committed and she approached her work with an infectious vigour and determination. This resolve carried her through life.
As a child of the Depression and a young woman (her father believed ‘education spoiled a girl’), her schooling almost came to an abrupt end after Year 10. However, Betty was fortunate to find a passionate ally in her headmistress at Somerville House in Brisbane, who fought for her to complete her senior studies. Betty then went on to further her education in London and to forge a path for women to take positions of authority in the arts in Australia. She was the first woman to head a tertiary institution and the first female director of a state gallery and of the National Gallery of Australia.
She was appointed director of the National Gallery of Australia in 1990 and her vision to make art accessible and relevant paralleled the impetus of our now great national institution for the visual arts. Of course, during her seven-year tenure as director, Betty’s contributions to growing the National Gallery and to promoting understanding of the arts in Australia were great. She not only loved building the collection—most notably Arthur Streeton’s Golden summer, Eaglemont 1889, because it was the last of the truly iconic Heidelberg School paintings to leave private hands—but also thinking about what a young national gallery should and could be doing beyond the reach of the nation’s already established state galleries.
During her time, she brought the world’s very best art to Australia and, for it, was labelled ‘Betty Blockbuster’. It was an epithet that began a little ambiguously but soon became one of justified praise as she brought record crowds to the Gallery in Canberra. What the National Gallery could not buy it would borrow. Her response to detractors of this idea was that audiences would come to see the blockbuster and stay for the permanent collection. Her consistent aim was to give people the confidence to enjoy art, to see the relevance of it and to broaden its audience. But it was not about popularising art; she wanted to speak to the population, not speak down to them. As Edmund Capon once put it, she ‘embraced both the scholar and the public at large’.
These blockbusters were events that would bring people from around Australia and did wonders for Canberra tourism. They included Rembrandt to Renoir, Matisse, The Age of Angkor and Rubens and the Italian Renaissance. They were important shows lent by major institutions from around the world, including our own region, but the first one that could truly be called ‘ours’ (that is, it was not a packaged show but was curated by professionals here) was Surrealism: revolution by night. Also under Betty’s reign, Turner’s two great oil paintings of the burning of the House of Lords and Commons came together for the first time outside America in the seminal 1996 exhibition Turner. Of Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, Betty recently said ‘It was almost too difficult to do, but not too difficult to do. And we did it’. This persistence, this obsession, her drive to do what was right despite resistance, was what spurred her to accomplish the impossible.
But it was not all about the blockbusters. Shows such as the insightful and poignant 1994 exhibition Don’t leave me this way showed real courage in tackling the challenging topic of HIV and was the first to do so at a national gallery anywhere in the world. Betty also initiated the building of a dedicated space for major temporary exhibitions. The space, however, did not open until March in the year following her departure from the Gallery. And, perhaps most importantly, the world’s estimation of Australian visual arts went up during her time. As then Director of the National Gallery in London said of Betty in a tribute published in Artonview:
In her time as Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher became for people in the arts world wide, the representative of the new Australia, and has brought the Canberra gallery into the mainstream of international exhibitions. She has come close to ousting the koala bear as the nation’s symbol abroad; if (perhaps) a little less cuddly, she is just as much loved, and much more highly respected.
Betty was also responsible for Artonview in its current guise. As she said in the first issue, it represented ‘an exciting further step’ in making ‘the National Collection accessible to the widest audience … a valuable extension to the benefits of Membership’. Her executive assistant at the time remembers Betty fondly as ‘a great storyteller’.
Whether it was at the end of a busy day in the late afternoon in her office overlooking Lake Burley Griffin when the early evening light would transform Mount Ainslie into an Arthur Boyd painting or walking through the galleries, always at a fast clip and with purpose, and watching Betty engage with visitors about a work of art they were looking at and in her utterly charming and inclusive way revealing a small detail that would bring sheer joy to their faces. Betty made the Gallery welcoming for visitors and was an inspirational communicator and leader and a fabulous person to work closely with.
After leaving, Betty maintained ties with the Gallery and could often be found in the aisles of the Research Library, hunting down and capturing words once remembered or making new discoveries to tell a story. She was an engrossing and informative storyteller and, while she was foremost for getting people curious about art, she never ignored the detail, the depth, the rigour and the authority one must bring to the tale. She went to great lengths even for the most simply told stories such as her television shorts Take 5.
Betty most admired art that was created from ‘an absolute, sheer necessity’. This unwavering passion that artists bring to their expressions is precisely what Betty brought to her lifetime of achievement in the sector and particularly as an enthusiastic educator about art. For her many accomplishments, she was awarded membership to the Order of Australia in 1990 and became an officer of the order in 1996.
Her obsession with art remained ever present. She continued to research and write and, with the help of family, she finalised her third ‘Notebook’. Her passing has left us all heavier but her lifetime of educating us about the world of art has left us strong and her indomitable spirit remains. Our thoughts are with the family she leaves behind.