An historical perspective: Queensland Art Gallery


When the new Queensland Art Gallery opened on the South Bank of the Brisbane River in June 1982, it seemed that the hopes expressed at the Gallery’s initial opening in 1895 were at last being realized — that the beginning of the Gallery, though ‘small and humble… would be the beginning of a very fine one’.

Extract from ‘Queensland Art Gallery: An historical perspective’ by Janet Hogan in Retrospect and Prospect, published by The Fine Arts Press Sydney, 1983 to celebrate the opening of the Queensland Art Gallery’s new permanent home at South Bank on 21 June 1982

The Queensland Government acquired several art works by gift in the 1880s and early 1890s, conditional upon their forming part of a national gallery when established. Such acquisitions included a group of seventeenth century Dutch paintings ‘of considerable value’, bequeathed by Queensland pastoralist and politician, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior, in 1892.

Concurrently, public interest in art was increasing in Brisbane and various proposals for an art gallery were presented to the Government. In 1887, the Queensland Art Society was formed through the activities of the artists Isaac Walter Jenner, Oscar Fristrom and L. W.K. Wirth, and in 1895 a Gallery ultimately opened through the efforts of artist Godfrey Rivers, who arrived from England in 1889 and subsequently became Arts Master at the Technical College and President of the Art Society.

A supplement to the Queensland Government Gazette on Monday, 25 March 1895 announced that ‘His Excellency the Governor, with the advice of the Executive Council, has been pleased to establish a Public Art Gallery in Brisbane, to be called “The Queensland National Art Gallery”…’ On the following Friday the Gallery was opened to the public by the Governor, Sir Henry Norman, ‘in presence of a large gathering of ladies and gentlemen’.

Origin and Establishment of the Queensland National Art Gallery, 1895 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The first premises of the Gallery comprised a large upper room of Brisbane’s then Town Hall, ‘placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council’. The collection initially under the control of the Trustees consisted of ‘thirty-eight pictures (many of which had been lent to the Gallery), one marble bust, and seventy engravings’. The first President of Trustees was the Chief Justice of Queensland, Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, and Godfrey Rivers acted as Secretary to the Trustees from their appointment. Rivers was also the first Curator, from 1898-1914/15.

Early gifts to the new Gallery included Jenner’s Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador and Fristrom’s Duramboi, donated by the artists. The Gallery’s first purchase was a British work, Blandford Fletcher’s Evicted, in 1896, and its first Australian purchase was Josephine Muntz-Adams’s Care, in 1898. In 1899 the initial Government grant of £500 had risen to £1 000 and, by 1900, the Trustees had decided to appoint a committee in London to assist with the selection of works of art in Europe. However. by 1904-05 the annual grant had dropped to £100, which was insufficient to meet expenses, including the rent of £50.

The Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Town Hall building. In a large upper room placed at the dlsposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
The opening display in the Queenslander, 13 April 1895 | Lagging well behind Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, Queensland’s National Gallery opened more or less permanently to the public for the first time on Friday afternoon, 29 March 1895. The modesty of this exhibition makes an interesting comparison to the opening of Brisbane’s lavish new Cultural Centre on the city’s South Bank. Hung not in a costly new building complex but given temporary quarters in the upstairs room of the Town Hall, the Collection consisted of a curious mixture of Old Masters and contemporary works and included both copies and originals / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

At the same time, more adequate accommodation was being considered. In his speech at the opening of the Gallery in 1895, the Governor said he ‘hoped that it would not be long before it would be necessary to provide a more suitable building for the Gallery’. By July 1896, the Trustees reported that ‘the present location of the Gallery is… inconvenient, and we are strongly of opinion that its interest and usefulness would be much increased if a more easily accessible site were available’. These sentiments were repeated annually until the Gallery was relocated to the third floor at the newly constructed Executive Building in George Street (renamed the Lands Administration Building in 1971 and now an international hotel) and reopened on 18 December 1905.

On 18 December 1905, the Gallery reopened in a purpose-designed room the length of the third floor above George Street in the recently completed Executive Building where it remained until 1930. During construction it was known as the New Lands and Survey Offices. The renamed Lands Administration building is a four-storey building occupying a site bounded by George Street, Stephens Lane, William Street and Queens Gardens. The building currently forms part of the Conrad Treasury Casino and houses a five star hotel. The form and scale of the building complement the former Treasury Building and the former State Library located nearby. The building was designed by the Queensland Government’s chief architect Thomas Pye in the Edwardian Baroque style. The building was initially intended as offices for the Queensland Government’s Lands and Survey Departments, when finished and occupied in 1905 as the Executive Building, accommodating both the Lands and Survey Departments and offices of the Premier and Executive Council / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
‘The Queensland National Art Gallery — Entertaining the visiting Premiers and their friends’. The Queensland Art Gallery Collection in the former Queensland Government Executive Building, 1907 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
The Queensland Art Gallery Collection in the former Queensland Government Executive Building, 1916 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

During 1929-30 the former Exhibition Building Concert Hall, erected in 1891, was remodelled to house the Gallery which moved there in 1930, providing further room for its Collection. The Gallery reopened to the public on 11 February 1931 and was officially opened by the Governor. Sir John Goodwin, on 8 April.

The Exhibition Building’s Concert Hall provided the Gallery’s premises from 1930 to 1974. The Old Museum was originally called the Exhibition Building and Concert Hall. It was built in 1891 for the Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Association after Brisbane’s first exhibition building, which had occupied the land, was destroyed by fire on 13 June 1888. The new exhibition building was designed by the architect George Henry Male Addison (1857–1922). The style of the building may best be described as progressive eclecticism. In 1899, the Exhibition Hall became home to the Queensland Museum, with the museum remaining in the building until the museum’s relocation to the Queensland Cultural Centre in 1986 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 / (Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
The Exhibition Building when it was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery from 1930 / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
The Exhibition Building was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery until 1974 / Reproduced courtesy: The Courier Mail / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Agitation continued throughout the years for fine, adequate, permanent premises befitting the State’s Art Gallery and proposals were made for various sites – without success. However, on 23 December 1968 the Trustees presented a submission to the Government on the inadequacies of the Gallery’s facilities and on this occasion positive action resulted. The present site overlooking the Brisbane River at South Brisbane was approved for purchase in April 1969.

Meanwhile, the Gallery had moved yet again to its fourth temporary premises, in the M.I.M. (Mount Isa Mines) building in Ann Street, where it reopened on 25 March 1975.

Postcard highlighting the Australian School Galleries, Queensland Art Gallery, M.I.M. building / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library


The Gallery remained in the M.I.M. Building until 1982. At the historic official opening of the new premises on 21 June 1982 the Minister for Tourism, National Parks, Sport and the Arts, the Honourable J. A. Elliott, said that he hoped the new Gallery would be a dynamic, ever-changing place that Queenslanders in the next century will come to for stimulation, spiritual replenishment and intellectual reward’.

A view from Queen Street c.1875, looking across the first Victoria Bridge to the site of the present Queensland Art Gallery / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
A view from Queen Street (date unknown, c. pre 1893), looking across the first Victoria Bridge to the site of the present Queensland Art Gallery / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
A view from Queen Street (date unknown, c. 1930s) looking across to the second Victoria Bridge to the site of the present Queensland Art Gallery. This bridge was officially opened on 1st October 1896. The first permanent bridge was washed away in floods in 1893 | Reproduced courtesy the John Oxley Library, Brisbane / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Elevated view of the second permanent Victoria Bridge spanning the Brisbane River looking toward South Brisbane, c. 1933. The second permanent bridge was demolished in 1969 after the erection alongside of another new structure. The new bridge which was opened on 14 April 1969, was needed to meet growing traffic demands. For a short period both bridges were open, each operating in one direction only / Reproduced courtesy: The John Oxley Library, Brisbane
Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery at South Brisbane, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Construction of the Queensland Art Gallery began August 1978 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Overlooking the Brisbane River from North Quay to South Brisbane, the Gallery’s first permanent premises were opened on 21 June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

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