Since her death on 30 March, Betty Churcher’s distinguished career has been the subject of numerous tributes that have reminded us of the depth and breadth of her influence in the Australian art world. She left a brilliant mark as an art museum director and as a teacher and communicator. Her abiding belief in the role and value of the visual arts in our daily lives defined her work and long public service.
Betty’s upbringing and education in Brisbane provided the foundation for a life dedicated to art and artists. She attended Somerville House and found early encouragement of her passion for art in a headmistress who ensured she could continue her studies — despite her father’s belief that education was not the ultimate necessity for a girl — and she was deeply inspired by art Teacher Pat Prentice. Betty developed a quiet but focused self-determination as a young girl: she was ambitious to succeed and resistant to any limiting proscriptions of the roles of women. She worked as a student teacher at Somerville House, and much later taught at Stuartholme School, where acclaimed painter Davida Allen was one of her students.
Childhood visits to the Queensland Art Gallery (then housed alongside Queensland Museum in the Exhibition Building’s Concert Hall) inspired Betty’s creative life, and her early art practice led to a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1950s. She met and married artist Roy Churcher in 1955, and in 1957 the pair returned to Brisbane, beginning a family and becoming immersed in the burgeoning contemporary art scene.
Betty’s trail-blazing commenced in the 1970s and was unabated for the rest of her life. After completing a Master of Arts at the Courtauld Institute in London in 1977, she returned to Australia to teach art history, a pursuit in which she was inspirational. Through the 1980s, she was the first female Dean of the School of Art and Design at Melbourne’s progressive Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT University). She was director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia from 1987 to 1990, and in 1990 became the first — and, to date, only — female director of the National Gallery of Australia. A trained artist and art historian, she was exactly the right figure to lead the NGA into the era of the blockbuster exhibition, and it was unsurprising that in ‘retirement’ she would host several television programs, through which she introduced the beauty and relevance of art to the widest possible audience. She was at once knowledgeable, warm and authentic — the perfect combination for the task.
Betty Churcher will be fondly remembered as one of the most passionate and transformative figures of the Australian art museum world. She was at the forefront of her generation in her accomplishments as a communicator on the subjects of art, artists and art history. Betty was endlessly engaged and engaging, and her example will continue to inspire all of us who work to bring art and people together.
It was my privilege to last meet Betty on the occasion of an ‘in conversation’ program about her Australian Notebooks publication at the 2014 Brisbane Writers Festival. She was, despite the then rapidly accelerating challenges to her health, as vital, clear and spirited in framing her responses as she ever once was. When the session ended, all too soon, it was clear that her audience wanted more. We all did.