Even though the National Portrait Gallery is the youngest of Australia’s national cultural institutions, the idea has been around for over a century. In the early 1900s, the painter Tom Roberts was the first to propose that Australia should have a national portrait gallery, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the possibility began to take shape. The 1992 exhibition ‘Uncommon Australians’ – developed by the Gallery’s founding patrons, Gordon and Marilyn Darling – was shown in Canberra and toured to four state galleries, reigniting the idea of a national portrait gallery. In 1994, under the management of the National Library of Australia, the Gallery’s first exhibition was launched in Old Parliament House. It was a further four years before the appointment of Andrew Sayers as Director signalled the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery as an institution in its own right, with a board, a budget and a brief to develop a collection of portraits reflecting the breadth and energy of Australian culture and endeavour. The opening of displays in the refurbished Parliamentary Library and two adjacent wings of Old Parliament House in 1999 endorsed the Gallery’s status and arrival as an independent institution.
For the first ten years of the National Portrait Gallery’s life, the spaces of Old Parliament House provided an apt location for the various programs and exhibitions exploring the traditions and currency of portrait practice in Australia. With its air of a gentleman’s lounge, the Parliamentary Library complemented the display of politicians and monarchs in the adjacent Kings Hall and lent the required level of gravitas to the permanent historical display of portraits from the Gallery’s collection, including that of its centrepiece - John Webber’s 1782 portrait of Captain James Cook, acquired by the Gallery in 2000. But equally, the welcoming, friendly scale of the display spaces at Old Parliament House punctured the perception of a ‘national’ portrait gallery as a ponderous arrangement of gold-framed figures in suits and robes. Rather than a hall of fame of ‘important’ people, visitors to the National Portrait Gallery at Old Parliament House experienced the mixed and intriguing bag of individual stories – good or bad, lofty or humble, famous or obscure – that punctuate Australian history. The Gallery’s exhibitions and collection development projects have succeeded in demonstrating portraiture as a varied and contemporary genre. Its active program of commissions has experimented with bold blends of artist and subject, resulting in some of the most surprising and successful Australian portraits of recent years - among them Ah Xian’s ceramic bust of Dr. John Yu, Bill Henson’s moody triptych of conductor Simone Young, and Howard Arkley’s now-iconic portrait of musician Nick Cave.
While the spaces of Old Parliament House proved adaptable to the National Portrait Gallery’s programs, its growing profile and collection necessitated the move to a dedicated building. Funding for the $87 million dollar building was provided in the 2005 Federal Budget and Sydney-based architectural firm Johnson Pilton Walker was awarded the job of creating the gallery, with construction commencing in December 2006. The design of the new building draws inspiration from Canberra’s environment and natural light and links the visitor’s experience of the gallery spaces to the Australian landscape.Most importantly, the concept for the new gallery is grounded in the experience of looking at portraiture, and in its emphasis on human scale the building favours intimacy and connection in lieu of reverence and the monumental. As has been the case for the Gallery’s time at Old Parliament House, the new spaces are about face to face experiences with individual lives, admirable and otherwise. The National Portrait Gallery’s new home is thus unique in its reflection of the flavour of the collection and further exercises our purpose of making new and important points about portraiture in Australia.