This new building began as an accessible front door.
This is why we are holding this ceremony outside the new front door.
The Gallery has never had an obvious entrance.
Indeed, for our major blockbuster exhibitions such as this year’s record-breaking Masterpieces from Paris, which attracted 180,000 visitors who had never been to Canberra before, we have had to employ people as ‘living signposts’ to direct visitors to the Gallery’s front door as they don’t know which building is the National Gallery, let alone how to get into it.
Now at last the National Gallery has what we have long needed: an obvious front door on the ground floor, a large sign easily visible from the road, and the entrance facilities now expected of modern, well attended museums.
But of course tonight we are opening much more including an expanded Gallery Shop, a Street Café, and a grand hall for openings and functions and education events – the Gandel Hall. I join the Chairman in thanking Pauline and John Gandel for this magnificent gift to the nation.
There is also James Turrell’s monumental Skyspace sculpture, Within, without, in our new Australian garden, and four other new sculptures.
We are also opening the first new space for the permanent collection since the Gallery opened in 1982.
The original gallery building was designed in 1969 to show only 1000 objects; we now have 150,000.
In my first months as director 5 years ago, I thought it irresponsible to go to such trouble and expense only for necessary amenities.
We have long needed to increase our permanent collection space to make the larger and growing collection accessible to all Australians.
When the Gallery opened it did not have a special permanent space for Australian Indigenous art and the National Gallery of Australia now has the largest Indigenous art collection.
We decided to address this important area first.
So tonight we also open 11 new spaces for Indigenous art.
For the first time in Australia, each space and room is specially designed for different regions or aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
Where possible, paintings and sculptures are illuminated by natural daylight, akin to the light in which the works were created.
You will have to come back during the day to see this brilliant natural illumination.
Moreover, the galleries are rooms consciously and unapologetically designed for the permanent collection of Indigenous art, not for anthropology or for the usual space for changing displays of Indigenous art.
Fittingly, this is the largest such Australian Indigenous display that exists, showing nearly 600 works, many of them recent acquisitions.
Most of the works won’t have been seen before.
Among the recent acquisitions is a very generous gift by Gordon and Marilyn Darling of 30 watercolours by Albert Namatjira.
‘Is this an over emphasis on Australian Indigenous art?’ you might ask.
Well, Indigenous Australians have been waiting for over 200 years for their culture to be so respected and celebrated and where better than in the national capital in the National Gallery of Australia.
But Stage One is only part of the story. It must be seen in the light of a further Stage Two.
Stage Two will bring European Australian art down from the cramped attic to the principal display level.
There was a strong push in the Gallery Council to combine Stage One and Stage Two.
But there was an even stronger push to achieve what was more manageable and finish Stage One first.
In the proposed new Stage Two displays, Australian art will be shown more logically, more capaciously and more beautifully alongside the other cultures of the world.
Stage Two will adjoin the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander galleries, and repeat the use of natural light.
Tonight also concludes the re-installation of the collections and renovations, as a result of which we have 10 completely new collection displays in the original building and the new loading docks, registration and collection management spaces necessary to manage a growing collection and handle a big touring exhibition program.
All this has happened in under five years.
Between the new concentrated displays in the original building and the new Indigenous galleries we can display over 2000 works, nearly twice as many as before.
The building we open tonight consciously showcases Australian materials.
· Mintaro slate from South Australia for the entrance foyer floors and paths
· Regrowth ironbark timber from Queensland for the floor of the Gandel Hall
· Chillagoe white marble from North Queensland for the west wall of the entrance foyer
· Green marble from the Pilbara in Western Australia for the bathrooms
· Tasmanian hardwood for the ceilings of Gandel Hall and Gallery Shop and the drum for the Aboriginal Memorial
· Victorian blue stone for the stupa of the James Turrell Skyspace
· And native Canberra dianella grass on its outer pyramid.
There are many people to thank for this extremely complex building program.
It was always a bipartisan project.
The Howard Government initially supported the project as did subsequent Labor governments.
I thank arts ministers in the Howard Government in those crucial first years of the project, especially Helen Coonan and Rod Kemp.
Peter Garret was always supportive both as shadow minister and as Minister for the Arts.
And we welcome our new Minister tonight, Simon Crean.
And our shadow minister, George Brandis.
I thank the architect Andrew Anderson and PTW for designing the building.
I thank and congratulate our Construction Company, Manteena,
George Sexton from Washington, who designed the lighting, and McGregor+Coxall landscape architects.
Australian designer Khai Liew designed the Gallery seating.
I acknowledge the help of the National Capital Authority at the beginning of the project, especially its former head, Annabelle Pegrum.
Within the Gallery, our Chairman of the Building Committee, Charles Curran, deserves special praise, as does the work and support of the Gallery Council, particularly former chairman Harold Mitchell and the current Chair Rupert Myer.
Of my own staff I would especially like to thank the vital work on the project by my indefatigable Deputy Director Alan Froud.
I of course mention my curators of Indigenous art: senior curator Franchesca Cubillo, and Tina Baum and Kelli Cole, and former curators Wally Caruana and Brenda Croft.
The Gallery staff have done a splendid job throughout the construction period and in preparing for tonight.
I especially thank our hardworking installation staff and our diligent conservation staff.
This world is very different to the one in which I began my art gallery career. Aboriginal Art is now one of the most popular areas in any Australian art museum.
And there is growing admiration around the world for Australian Indigenous art.
After 40,000 years of isolation, the world’s oldest continuing culture as shown in these new gracious spaces can at last claim its prominent and permanent place among the great cultures of the world.
· I now have great pleasure in inviting Her Excellency the Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Quentin Bryce, to officially open our Stage One building project, unveil the specially commissioned commemorative sculpture by the late Mari Funaki, then to lead us all into the foyer where this opening ceremony will conclude.
· Her Excellency has long played an interested and constructive role in Aboriginal affairs in Australia and indeed has in the past met many of the artists here tonight.Canberra, 30 September, 2010