14 June 2021

National Gallery plans to revitalise its neglected and ageing gardens

| Ian Bushnell
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National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia says its gardens need a lift. Photo: Jack Mohr.

The National Gallery of Australia is planning to renovate its grounds and gardens which it says are no longer befitting of a national cultural institution in some places.

McGregor Coxall, which previously worked with NGA on its Australian Garden and the James Turrell Skyspace, has been contracted to provide a design framework for the future redevelopment of the 40-year-old NGA surrounds.

The NGA says that age, gallery expansion, patchy horticultural management and a lack of resources have all contributed to the decline – particularly in the sculpture gardens.

“The National Gallery has determined that it is time to now consider its surrounds as a cohesive whole and move toward uniting this fragmented landscape,” it said.

In particular, the maintenance of the Skyspace has left little room in the budget for work elsewhere in the gardens where there is little room for the placement of new sculptures.

The gallery also wants to see more Indigenous influences in the gardens.

McGregor Coxall will look at strengthening the connectivity between distinct areas of the gardens, better infrastructure and amenities, more opportunities for visitors to explore, linger and shelter, the creation of spaces for the installation of future artworks, innovative public spaces for a range of events, commemorative services and visitor activities and long-term sustainability.

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The NGA says significant repairs and improvements are required over the next decade, including the replacement of lighting and paving in the sculpture garden where the architect’s original vision has not been maintained due to plantings and sightlines not being appropriately preserved.

It says some parts of the sculpture garden are only accessible via the ‘intrusive and hostile’ gravel staff car park which occupies land originally intended for the Autumn Garden.

NGA sculpture garden

The NGA sculpture garden has become static. Photo: NGA.

“The sculpture garden has remained relatively static over the past decade and contemporary works have not, to-date, been part of the exhibition program. That, coupled with the lack of new commissions, have made the gallery appear static,” the NGA said.

It wants to raise the profile of the sculpture garden through a major new acquisitions program over the next decade, including increasing the number of Australian, women and Indigenous artists represented and an annual major commission connecting with major events in the Canberra region such as Floriade and Canberra Day.

The gallery sees scope for greater community and institutional collaboration, sharing works throughout the parliamentary precinct and working with schools and other national institutions such as the High Court, National Portrait Gallery and the National Capital Authority.

It wants to give Canberra’s Traditional Custodians more presence in the gardens by including local seasonal knowledge by working with the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on a knowledge revitalisation project and conducting a cultural stocktake of plantings including traditional and cultural plants.

It envisages projects which develop a greater understanding and celebration of the Custodians’ languages, knowledge and presence through interactive sculptural installations including a ‘yarning’ circle as a focal point.

Project Manager and Landscape Architecture Associate for McGregor Coxall’s Sydney Studio, Fraser Halliday, said the firm would seek to enhance positive cultural, environmental and social outcomes for the National Gallery, creating a functional, aesthetic, and climate-resilient landscape that complements prestigious art commissions for the public to explore and appreciate.

“The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden is one of Australia’s most significant cultural landscapes,” he said.

“With careful consideration to National Gallery’s inclusion on the National Heritage List, we must ensure its future direction pays respect to its past, is grounded in First Nations knowledge, and demonstrates national leadership by advancing representation of First Nations culture and women artists.

“We are excited to return to the National Gallery and assist them in realising their vision for a dynamic cultural hub in the nation’s capital.”

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