History of the building

The classically elegant Art Gallery of NSW is one of Sydney’s most distinctive landmarks. The façade and old wing of the Gallery were built between 1896 and 1909. Architecturally, the building reflects 19th-century ideas about the cultural role of a gallery as a temple to art and civilising values. Yet early designs for the Gallery were less confident about the institution’s role and image. The present building is the work of government architect Walter Liberty Vernon, who secured the prestigious commission over the less conventional architect John Horbury Hunt.

The story of building the Gallery reads like a sensational novel. All the elements – intrigue, personal animosity and nepotism – are present. That the institution acquired such a fine historic building is almost fortuitous.

Early homes

The first home for Sydney’s art collection was at Clark’s Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street. This building, which had at one time been used for dancing classes, was rented between 1875 and 1879. It was open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons.

The International Exhibition of 1879 provided an opportunity for the national collection to be re-housed more suitably. Space was initially allocated in the main hall of the Garden Palace, but as lighting and display possibilities were not considered adequate, the government allowed William Wardell to construct a ‘Fine Arts Annexe’ of nine rooms near the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. Concerns for safety and conservation of works, as well as the fire which destroyed the Garden Palace in 1882, ruled out the annexe as a permanent home for the collection. In December 1885 the collection was moved to a building of six rooms at the present site in the Domain.

John Horbury Hunt, an architect in private practice, was contracted to submit plans for a gallery in preference to the government’s James Barnet. Some of the trustees were suspicious of Barnet after his controversial work on the General Post Office. Intended to be the foundation of a more substantial building when funds became available, Hunt’s temporary building, which was nothing more than a series of thick walls with a sawtooth roof, was universally disliked. It was denounced in the press by prominent citizens as the ‘art barn’. Economic depression, politics and personality clashes eventually robbed Hunt of the opportunity to design the gallery.

In 1889 the trustees authorised Hunt to complete a set of plans for the Gallery, the total cost of the building 'not exceeding £80 000’. The trustees proved difficult to accommodate and Hunt eventually submitted three separate sets of plans to them. His first design was for a brick building with Tuscan columns and a highly decorated frieze. Considered too grandiose and eclectic in style, it was not popular. His last design, in 1895, was for a heavy Gothic structure with a blind arcade of pointed arches winding around it. The trustees argued that none of these plans could be carried out with the funds at their disposal. They believed Hunt’s plans covered a much larger area than required and that a Classic Ionic structure would be more appropriate than Hunt’s hybrid forms.

Walter Vernon’s building

Ten years after plans were first drawn up, the task was entrusted to Walter Vernon. The building he designed was in many ways a departure from the style he was pursuing at the time. He had turned away from a grand classical style, erecting more modest buildings in brick with stone dressing. Vernon believed that the Gothic style admitted greater individuality and richness ‘not obtainable in the colder and unbending lines of pagan classic’. Yet the trustees would have none of this. They demanded a classical temple to art, not unlike William Playfair’s fine gallery in Edinburgh. The Gallery’s present form is a little more austere and undecorated than Vernon had originally intended. His designs show provision for extensive sculptural ornamentation of the façade.

Vernon’s building was built in four stages. Present day courts 7 and 8 were commenced in 1896 and opened in May 1897. They are distinguished from later courts by the yellower timber of their parquetry floors. By 1901 the entire southern half of the building was finished. A newspaper article at the time noted: ‘Only one wing of the building, about one fourth of the whole structure, is at present completed, and gives rich promise of future beauty. The style is early Greek. The facade is built of thracyte and freestone. The interior is divided into four halls, each 100 feet by 30 feet, communicating with each other by pillared archways. The lighting is almost perfect, designs for the roof having been furnished by London correspondents after careful study of all the latest improvements in European galleries. The walls are coloured a chill neutral green shade, which makes an excellent background.’

Completing the Gallery

In 1902 Vernon presented an eight-page presentation album to the trustees, illustrating his proposed designs for a completed Gallery. It included two designs for an imposing central court. Vernon proposed that his oval lobby, opened in 1902 and considered his masterpiece, would lead into an equally imposing central court. His plans were not accepted. Until 1969 his lobby led, by a short descent from the entrance level, to three northern galleries originally designed by Hunt. In 1909 the front of the Gallery was finished and after this date nothing more was built of Vernon’s designs. In the 1930s plans were suggested for the completion of this part of the Gallery but the Depression and other financial constraints led to their abandonment.

The new additions

In 1968, the NSW government decided that the completion of the Gallery would be a major part of the Captain Cook bicentenary celebrations. This extension, which was opened to the public on 5 May 1972, and those made to the east of the existing structure as part of the national bicentenary in 1988, were both the responsibility of Government architect Andrew Andersons. The 1988 eastern extension doubled the size of the Gallery. It provided expanded display space for the collection and temporary exhibitions, a new gallery for Asian art and an outdoor sculpture garden. In 1994, the Yiribana Gallery, a space devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture, was opened.

In 2003, the new Asian gallery, designed by Sydney architect Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker, was opened. This major building project also included alterations to the original Asian gallery, a new temporary exhibition space above the Gallery’s entrance foyer, new conservation studios, a cafe, a restaurant and a dedicated function area with spectacular harbour views.

In 2008, the announcement of a gift from John Kaldor and his family of over 200 contemporary artworks led the NSW government to fund a state-of-the-art offsite storage facility to allow space within the Gallery to display the collection. The Kaldor family gift, together with funds donated by the Belgiorno-Nettis family, enabled us to redevelop the Gallery’s old storage area and display space to create an entire new floor of 3300 square metres of exhibition space, bringing the Gallery’s total display area to 11,000 square metres.

Architect Andrew Andersons from PTW Architects designed the new area within the existing building extensions of 1972 and 1988, which he also designed. The space comprises contemporary and modern galleries, including the John Kaldor Family Gallery and our first dedicated photography gallery as well as a refurbished study room for works on paper.