Touring the collection
From touring a Fred Williams retrospective to regional centres in 1988 and sending The Aboriginal Memorial to St Petersburg in 2000 to travelling a major exhibition of First Nations art ever to Asia in 2022, National Gallery exhibitions have toured to the far reaches of the country and across the globe. For 34 years, the Touring Exhibitions team have been instrumental to making this happen.
For over three decades, the National Gallery has been touring works of art from the collection through exclusive loans and dedicated exhibitions. Since 1988, Touring Exhibitions have reached almost 12 million visitors, with audiences around the country and overseas experiencing over 10,000 works from the national collection at more than 1795 venues. In our 40th year, we reflect the past, present and future of Touring Exhibitions with the specialised team at the National Gallery.
Home to some of the finest art in the world, the Gallery’s collection deserves to be seen outside of Kamberri/Canberra. Helping the Gallery fulfil its remit to be a truly national institution, the Touring Exhibitions team is led by Touring Exhibitions Manager Mary-Lou Nugent, with Camilla Greville, Kathleen Worboys, Isobel Taylor-Rodgers and Ruby Rossiter.
In the Gallery’s 40th year alone, the team has implemented the national and international tours of Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, Skywhales: Every Heart Sings, The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, Spowers & Syme, Terminus: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Ned Kelly, Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends and the National Gallery Art Cases.
‘The program features a range of exhibitions, big and small, across all mediums, yet at its heart is the goal to reach all Australians no matter where they live’
The national collection belongs to the Australian people and through the diversity of exhibitions going on tour, the Gallery shares the various artistic voices and cultures that are represented onsite. Featuring history’s best-known artists and leading contemporary artists from abroad, touring exhibitions also demonstrate the breadth of artmaking in this country.
The Gallery is home to Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly series – a popular home-grown favourite for local audiences as it distils the infamous bushranger’s story into a visual narrative in which the Australian landscape plays a key role. Ned Kelly has just returned from a four-year tour of every state and territory across the country. Over this time, 25 of Nolan’s depictions of the notorious outlaw were seen by over 151,000 people.
According to Kathleen, helping people access the national collection is a great motivator for the team: ‘That’s important to us. It is the gallery’s mission statement – on site, online, on tour – to get the collection out to the people,’ she says. ‘One of my favourite parts of the job is getting to meet such a range of people and having the opportunity to learn from them as well.’
The Touring team essentially acts as a microcosm of the Gallery when on the road – or on the air – undertaking everything from installation to condition checking to negotiating exhibition contracts. Sometimes a curator or conservator will also travel to a venue, but other times it can be a one-person job. Before the tour begins, the team works closely with the Curatorial, Conservation and Registration departments to ensure venues are suitable for the exhibition. All have come from an exhibition or art handling background – a critical skill in this context. As the tour approaches and throughout exhibition seasons, the team also works with the Learning and Engagement and Communications, Content and Marketing teams to support tour delivery and promotion.
Fresh from the first international stop of Ever Present in Singapore, Touring Exhibitions Manager Mary-Lou says 'Sharing the collection with the widest possible audience is a top priority. Ever Present gave us an opportunity to share over 170 works of art by First Nations artists with new audiences in Singapore.’
Working closely with Gulumirrgin/Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Tina Baum and key National Gallery of Australia staff, Wesfarmers Arts and the National Gallery, Singapore, a huge collaborative effort was made to tour the works of over 150 First Nations artists to Singapore, but also to ensure the curation of the exhibition would translate to local audiences.
As Tina indicated ‘With the impact of colonialism also prevalent in Singapore and Southeast Asian cultures, this exhibition felt important to not only us but our Singapore colleagues and their audiences.’
Mary-Lou says the recent tour of Patricia Piccinini’s skywhales was unlike anything the team had done before. Mary-Lou, who has been on the Touring team for 14 years says the successful touring program of the skywhales was one of the most exciting and challenging experiences of her time in the role.
With an intensive program of flights across the states, the Skywhales: Every Heart Sings Touring event has seen Skywhale and Skywhalepapa take the skies over regional towns and metropolitan cities across Australia, with only few impacted by mother nature. Despite weather related disruptions to flights, the people who gathered together to see the Skywhale family tether always left full of wonder.
‘The skywhales create a sense of care and community, which is the artist’s intention and people always leave the event feeling inspired. It’s been an honour to take them around the country.’
‘Taking these wonderful works to small towns across Australia and to see the impact they have in regions, is a truly magical experience makes all the hard work worthwhile.’
These touring exhibitions are made possible through generous support of the Gallery’s partners and donors and secured through the Touring Exhibition team’s relationships with galleries, particularly across Australia.
‘Our relationship with the regional venues is one of the most important elements of our job – it underpins the success of the tour,’ Mary-Lou says. ‘It is always a very collegiate experience. You have this wonderful creative period when you are installing a show together, working with this new team.’
Camilla adds: ‘Our regional colleagues are all very accomplished and they’re so grateful for the opportunity to host these exhibitions.’
According to Kathleen, regional institutions are thrilled to be able to share the national collection with their locales. ‘People are so excited to have the collection in their community, as well as the projects and programs around it.’
Going forward, the increased accessibility of the collection will remain key focus of the National Gallery and the touring program is to remain at the heart of this.
‘We are currently working on some exciting and dynamic touring exhibitions coming to a range of venues – here and overseas – for 2023’ said Mary-Lou.
Continuing on tour in 2023 is Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, Skywhales: Every Heart Sings, The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, Spowers & Syme, Terminus: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Yayoi Kusama: THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS, Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends and the National Gallery Art Cases, with new touring exhibitions to be announced.
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.