Former director of National Gallery of Australia Betty Churcher brought art to the masses
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Betty Churcher on her property in Wamboin in 2014. Photo: Melissa Adams Betty Churcher, at her home in Wamboin in 2012 Photo: Graham Tidy
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She was the public face of art in Australia, famous for bringing culture to the masses through blockbuster exhibitions and television shows.
But Betty Churcher, who died on Tuesday aged 84, was just as committed in her private life to thinking, writing and above all talking about the subject she loved most.
The former director of the National Gallery of Australia is remembered as a seminal figure in the arts sector, a superior curator and administrator as well as a gifted communicator who introduced Australians to the world of art outside the national collections.
As director of the NGA from 1990 to 1997, she was an indomitable character who set out, right from the start, to put the gallery on the map.
She changed its name from the Australian National Gallery to its current title, the National Gallery of Australia – a symbolic shift in direction, bringing it in line with other international institutions.
It was also in keeping with her strategy to bring the outside art world into Australia.
Famously dubbed “Blockbuster Betty”, she presided over 12 international shows in seven years, bringing queues to the gallery the likes of which had never been seen before.
It’s a reputation she always professed to be perfectly proud of, even if she once had her detractors. And the gallery has been staging successful international shows ever since, not least 2010’s Masterpieces from Paris, which broke all Australian records for crowds and revenue.
“Why I think it’s so wonderful is we can never, in this country, own a lot of those great masterpieces, because we started too late, for one thing. So by the time the Australian gallery started the European galleries had stuffed their cellars full of all the great masterpieces,” she said in 2011.
Not only did the crowds love the shows, they were also motivated to look at the rest of the gallery and the permanent collection, as well as bringing tourist dollars into the capital.
After leaving the gallery in 1997 and settling in Wamboin, a village just outside Canberra, she remained committed to bringing art to the masses and ensuring that as many people as possible could enjoy the world’s great artworks.
An unmistakeable figure with her trademark silver bob and high cheekbones, she hosted a television program on ABC, Hidden Treasures, for some years and later wrote several books about her travels around the world’s great art galleries.
Notebooks, published in 2011, was a journey through some of Europe’s greatest galleries, undertaken as her sight was deteriorating.
A melanoma had robbed her right eye of its vision and she later developed macular degeneration in the left. In 2006, she decided to take a last trip to Europe and commit to memory some of her favourite paintings while she still could.
In Notebooks, she published her own sketches alongside images of the works themselves – a lifelong habit that had always ensured she could keep paintings in her mind.
A trained artist who once showed great promise, she gave up painting to focus on raising her four children with the artist Roy Churcher.
It’s a decision she maintained she never regretted – for her, raising a family was not compatible with painting.
Despite failing health – she suffered from emphysema and last month announced that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer – she published a follow-up last year, Australian Notebooks, focusing on six major state galleries in Australia.
Roy Churcher died last year, and Betty Churcher is survived by their four sons.
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