21 November 2023

Top British gallery director 'honoured' to deliver Betty Churcher memorial lecture

| Sally Hopman
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Betty Churcher

The Betty Churcher AO Memorial Ovation, created in 2022 to honour the former director of the National Gallery of Australia, will be held on 29 November. Photo: NGA.

The director of London’s acclaimed Tate Gallery, Maria Balshaw, will deliver the annual lecture established to honour Australia’s first and only female National Gallery director, the late Betty Churcher.

Known as the Betty Churcher AO Memorial Ovation, the lecture series was established in 2022 to celebrate her impact and legacy as a champion for elevating women’s voices in the arts.

Ms Balshaw, one of the leading figures in the international art world, is also a decorated arts educator, like Ms Churcher. She was appointed as the Tate’s first female director in 2017 and was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to the arts in 2015.

“Betty Churcher’s legacy embodies my aspirations for the Tate to make art accessible to a wider public and to ensure that the artworks in our galleries represent the dynamism and diversity of the global art scene,” Ms Balshaw said.

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She described Ms Churcher as “passionate and pragmatic in equal measure”, which allowed her to achieve an enormous amount, particularly for women in the arts, whom she tirelessly championed.

“I feel honoured, as a fellow female arts director, to be speaking at an event held in this inimitable woman’s name,” Ms Balshaw said.

Ms Churcher, who died in 2015, was a leading arts educator and administrator and led the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997. Among the many other firsts in her career, she was the first woman to lead an Australian tertiary education centre as dean of the School of Art and Design at Phillip Institute of Technology in Melbourne (1982–1987) and was the first woman to lead a state gallery as director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1987–1990).

Woman in front of striped wall

The director of London’s Tate Gallery, Maria Balshaw, will deliver the annual lecture in honour of Australia’s first and only female National Gallery director, the late Betty Churcher. Photo: Tate Gallery.

But it was her passion for bringing the best international art to Australia that earned her the nickname “Betty Blockbuster”. She brought 12 major international exhibitions to the Canberra gallery during her career at the NGA, including Rembrandt to Renoir, Matisse, The Age of Angkor and Rubens and the Italian Renaissance.

Also under Ms Churcher’s direction, two of Turner’s greatest oil paintings of the burning of the House of Lords and the House of Commons came together for the first time outside the United States in the 1996 exhibition, Turner.

She was quoted at the time saying: “It was almost too difficult to do, but not too difficult to do. And we did it.”

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A tribute to her published in Artonview from her counterpart at the National Gallery in London said: “In her time as director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher became, for people in the arts worldwide, the representative of the new Australia, and has brought the Canberra gallery into the mainstream of international exhibitions. She has come close to ousting the koala bear as the nation’s symbol abroad; if perhaps a little less cuddly, she is just as much loved and much more highly respected.”

The Betty Churcher AO Memorial Ovation was established in 2022 as part of the National Gallery’s Gender Equity Action Plan. It will be held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, on 29 November at 6:30 pm.

Bookings essential. Tickets are available from the NGA website.

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