Betty Churcher (1931-2015) knew that if you wanted the best loans for an international exhibition you had to get the museum directors of the world to go along with the journey. This required an initial charm offensive followed by a persuasive argument about the nature of the show you were proposing. It couldn’t be a bunch of pretty pictures, it had to advance the scholarship on a particular artist, such as J.M.W. Turner.
For the National Gallery of Australia’s Turner exhibition of 1996, Churcher and her chief curator, Michael Lloyd, came within one vote of securing The Fighting Temeraire from the Trustees of London’s National Gallery. It would’ve been a coup, but the overall quality of the show meant that no-one complained about the absence of a single iconic painting.
Despite her achievements as an educator at Kelvin Grove in Brisbane and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Churcher made her reputation as an arts administrator. She became Chairwoman of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1983, and Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1987 – making her the first woman to be appointed head of a state gallery. In 1990, she became the second director of the NGA, following on from James Mollison.
Churcher’s public image was defined by her years at the NGA, an appointment that was extended beyond her own wishes because of the difficulty of finding a successor. The two directors that followed, Brian Kennedy and Ron Radford, would both become mired in scandal and controversy. They could have learned a lot from Churcher.
Among the qualities that distinguished Churcher from most of Australia’s gallery directors, past and present, one must single out her excellent communications skills. She made friends easily among the leaders of international institutions, notably Neil MacGregor, often viewed as the most formidable gallery director in the world. Now in charge of the British Museum, McGregor reputedly wept when informed of Churcher’s death.
Churcher was equally good with the politicians, enjoying an excellent working relationship with Paul Keating. She had strong support from the three Chairmen of the NGA Council during her tenure – Gough Whitlam, Lionel Bowen and Kerry Stokes.
Crucial to Churcher’s success was a positive engagement with the media. She was unfailingly polite and generous with journalists, and gave freely of her time. She was not only respected but positively adored by many of those who reported on her activities. When one thinks of the tangle her successors got themselves into, it’s almost impossible to imagine such smooth sailing. It should now be clear that directors who barricade themselves away behind closed doors, employ spin doctors and refuse to give interviews are committing professional suicide.
Churcher never played the empress. She saw herself as the custodian of a public collection with a duty to give audiences the best possible service. She was “Betty”, never “Ms. Churcher”. She was willing to listen to advice and act accordingly.
When a large part of her resources were being spent on crucial building maintenance, Churcher relied on so-called ‘blockbusters’ to bring in audiences. The most notable of these, apart from Turner, were Rubens and the Italian Renaissance (1992) and Surrealism: Revolution by Night (1993) – a landmark exhibition that traced the global evolution of this movement, putting Australian artists alongside well known modern masters.
These shows were often unique to Canberra, initiated and controlled by the NGA, and of relatively short duration. Nowadays a temporary show might run for two or three times the length of a Churcher blockbuster. The NGA’s current exhibition of James Turrell runs for an extraordinary seven months.
Churcher believed that continuous programming was the way to get audiences to keep coming back to Canberra. She set up an expectation that every season would provide at least one must-see exhibition, along with a range of smaller focus shows. There was a theatricality about these events, which ensured a lavish amount of free publicity. In recent years galleries have fallen back on expensive advertising to compensate for a lack of immediate interest from the media.
Under Churcher’s reign the NGA became the nation’s quintessential arts venue – the institution that represented Australia to the world. Nowadays the leading candidate for that title is probably David Walsh’s privately owned, Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart.
The two major Australian acquisitions made during Churcher’s time at the NGA were Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s 22 panel Alhalkere Suite (1993). The former was controversial because the gallery paid what was then a record price of $3.5 million. The passing of years, however, has made this an insignificant sum.
Life after the NGA saw a consolidation of Churcher’s remarkable popularity. Her brief Take Five segments for ABC TV became compulsory viewing. Her books, including two volumes of her own notes and sketches, found eager buyers. She had a gift that couldn’t be denied: a powerful enthusiasm for art that she conveyed to a large popular audience. There were no games, no smart-aleck remarks or pompous pronouncements. Churcher loved the works she spoke about, and invited her fans to share that passion.