Founded in 1884, the Art Gallery of Ballarat is the oldest and largest regional gallery in Australia, housed in a heritage-listed purpose-built gallery building which was opened by Alfred Deakin on Friday 13 June 1890, having taken three years to construct.
In Ballarat, the 1880s witnessed building on a grand scale in the centre of the city. It was home to many citizens whose background and inclinations led them to the view that an art gallery was an essential element of a civilised and modern city. Of these, the most important was undoubtedly James Oddie.
The ‘Father of Ballarat’
Having come to Ballarat as a digger, Oddie made a fortune as a real estate agent and subsequently as a banker. He had liberal attitudes both in terms of politics and culture and was a firm believer in the potential of people to lift themselves up through hard work and education. He saw an art gallery as a way for his fellow citizens to look beyond their everyday lives and be inspired and edified by the Fine Arts.
In 1885 Oddie gave the new Gallery a painting he had commissioned from noted artist Eugene von Guerard, showing Ballarat in its early days as a tent city. This painting, ‘Old Ballarat as it was in the Summer of 1853/54’ is still at the heart of the Gallery’s collection.
The Collection Grows
The Gallery holds an exceptional collection, built up lovingly, intelligently and often with inspiration over 120 years. An important factor in the growth was the George Crouch Prize for contemporary art, which ran from 1927 till the 1970s. Established by Federal MP Richard Crouch, a native of Ballarat and son of an early pioneer, as an acquisitive art prize in memory of his father, the Crouch Prize was for many years one of the most prestigious art prizes in the country.
The Crouch Prize ensured that the Gallery continued to build its collection of Australian art at a time when any other regional galleries were suffering from a lack of energy and investment. Crouch also established a prizes for watercolours in memory of his sister Minnie and gave the Gallery his remarkable collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, the only Australian holding of such items outside the capital cities.
The Gallery Comes into Public Hands
In 1979, the Gallery Association gave the building and collection to the Ballaarat City Council, which undertook to operate the Gallery for the benefit of the Ballarat community and visitors. The Association kept a stake in the ownership of the collection and has continued to have close involvement many aspects of the life of the Gallery.
The period of the early 1970s also saw the Gallery start to take seriously its custodianship of the original flag from the 1854 Eureka Stockade. This unique and beautiful relic, which had been held by the Gallery since 1895, underwent conservation works and was put on permanent display in 1973. Serious attention has been given to the acquisition of works of art that help to interpret the story of Eureka.
The Gallery Now
The focus of the Collection is to present the history of Australian Art to the current time through paintings and works on paper with selections of sculpture and decorative arts, also looking closely at the work of regional artists and works depicting the growth of Ballarat. Recent purchases and donations have expanded on the holdings of modern Australian sculpture and opened up a new vista of collecting – the art of the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Top End.
The Gallery building has changed and evolved in response over the years to the expansion of the collection and reflecting the place the gallery has had in Ballarat’s cultural life. The first addition to the 1890 building came in the 1920s, with the addition of two large gallery rooms on the upper level.
In 1987 the City of Ballaarat expanded the Gallery into the Bones Building, a group of shops adjoining the existing building in Lydiard Street. The latest expansion came as part of the 2001 Centenary of Federation, when the Gallery building was extended through to Camp Street as part of the Camp Street arts precinct, which also includes the University of Ballarat Arts Academy and Alfred Deakin Place.
The Art Gallery of Ballarat is one of Australia’s great art galleries. It remains at the heart of Ballarat’s cultural life and offers residents and visitors a vigorous and exciting program of exhibitions, as well as providing an opportunity to walk through the entire span of Australia’s art history.