Genesis of the Queensland Art Gallery


From modest beginnings in 1895, the Queensland Art Gallery celebrates 30 years at South Bank on 21 June 2012, its first permanent home after a series of temporary premises. This is the story of providing for the needs of the people of Queensland in all aspects of the visual arts.

Robin Gibson Queensland Art Gallery
Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank, June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

December 23, 1968, was a fateful day in the cultural history of Queensland. On that day, a submission on inadequacies of art gallery facilities in relation to the cultural needs of the state were presented by the Gallery Trustees to the Minister for Cultural Activities.

This submission, compiled after decades of recognising the need for an art gallery, was the genesis of the Queensland Art Gallery today. It culminated many years of moves to have the gallery built.

At last the dreams of the art enthusiasts of Queensland looked like becoming a reality.

This became even more apparent on the next fateful day — 14 January 1969. On that day State Cabinet decided to appoint a committee to select a site for the new Queensland Art Gallery.

This was refreshing, stimulating news.

For decades it had been apparent that the existing art gallery facilities were inadequate, outmoded. There had been much talk about building a new gallery. Nothing more. But in 1969, with the appointment of the site selection committee the State Government took a giant, decisive cultural step.

The choice of a site narrowed to three — the area once proposed for a Catholic Cathedral in Ann Street, next to Centenary Park; the site then occupied by a Tramways Department Depot in Coronation Drive; land on the South Bank of the river next to Victoria Bridge.

Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

After an in-depth investigation by an inter-departmental committee the riverside site on the South Bank was the choice. State Cabinet approved this decision and acquisition of the land began. On 28 July 1971, a steering committee for the new Art Gallery project was established.

The then Assistant Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, Mr Raoul Mellish, undertook a study tour to the United States and Europe as part of the 1973 Churchill Fellowship. The basic purpose of this tour was to gather data in selected various overseas art galleries in relation to the requirements of the proposed Queensland Art Gallery.

While overseas he established contacts with internationally recognised experts in various specialised fields of art gallery operation. This report presented to the Steering Committee on 10 January 1974, contains information on all aspects of Art Gallery planning.

Eight months after its formation the Steering Committee had completed a comprehensive and detailed report and brief which was submitted to State Cabinet. After decades of inaction, the culturally refreshing move towards building a new Queensland Art Gallery quickened pace. Only five days after receiving the committee’s report and brief, Cabinet approved it.

The report included the idea that the architect for the new gallery should be selected by a two-stage competition. The architects were then invited to submit entries. From the 10 entrants three were invited to participate in the Second Stage of the competition. They were: Bligh, Jessup, Bretnall and Partners Pty Ltd; Robin Gibson and Partners; Lund, Newell, Paulsen Pty Ltd.

On 16 March 1973, the winner — Robin Gibson and Partners — was announced. The assessors described the winner: “The winning design exhibits great clarity and simplicity of concept and relates admirably to the environment and site.”

By now the prospect of a new Queensland Art Gallery was exciting the state’s art lovers. But more stimulating news was to come. On 8 November 1974, State Cabinet decided that a Cultural Centre comprising the Art Gallery, the State Library, the Queensland Museum and a Performing Arts Centre should be built on the riverbank site.

With an alacrity that would have amazed the Art Gallery enthusiasts of a few decades previously, State Cabinet, on 14 January 1975, approved the appointment of a Cultural Centre Planning and Establishment Committee.

Soon the riverbank site was cleared of old buildings by the wreckers and bulldozers and the site was prepared for the greatest advance in Queensland’s cultural history.

Early in 1977 the first section of Stage One was completed at a cost of $1.5 million. This included the spectacular Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Fountain in the river, riverbank rock walls and landscaping, access pontoon and walkways.

This section was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth on 11 March 1977.

Queen Elizabeth II at the Queensland Art Gallery South Bank site, 11 March 1977 to activate the Silver Jubilee Fountain / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
The Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Fountain celebrations at the Queensland Art Gallery South Bank site, 11 March 1977 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

On 11 August 1978, the art lovers of Queensland had good cause to rejoice. On that day a $19.1 million contract to build the new Queensland Art Gallery was signed. At last a world-ranking art gallery of which Queensland could be immensely proud was on the way.

Decades of procrastination had become a forgettable shadow of the past. Soon after the contract signing the South Bank of the river next to Victoria Bridge became alive with the roar and clatter of the builders.

It was an exhilarating development in Queensland’s history. Now the Queensland Art Gallery not only provides an inspiring centre for people to visit, it also lifts Brisbane’s and Queensland’s prestige throughout the world.

Construction of the Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank began August 1978, with site construction at 11 June 1979 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank and surrounding South Brisbane, 15 June 1982 / BCC-B120-7876 / Courtesy: Brisbane City Council
Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank and surrounding South Brisbane, 15 June 1982 / BCC-B120-7879 / Courtesy: Brisbane City Council

Extract from the publication Queensland Art Gallery presented by The Courier Mail and published for the official opening of the Queensland Art Gallery’s new permanent home at South Bank on 21 June 1982.