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Top 5 Attractions at National Gallery of Australia

Home > Canberra > Art | Exhibitions | Free | Galleries | Restaurants | Lists
by Sue W (subscribe)
New to Canberra, I love exploring this city and the secrets that it holds with my family.
Published January 1st 2017
Beauty & sculpture inside and outside
The National Gallery of Australia is located in the Parliamentary Triangle in Canberra. It holds some of Australia's most prized pieces of art and sculpture, with over 166,000 works of art - most of which are on display. Depending on your love of art, it is easy to spend a couple of hours or a whole day at this inspiring gallery. The idea of this national public art gallery first began with prominent Australian artist Tom Roberts in 1910, however it took a number of changes in political parties, the Depression and two World Wars, before Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies picked up the idea and construction of the building began in 1967.

As you walk into the large, impressive building the high ceilings and grand entrance evoke a feeling that you have walked into somewhere special. The friendly staff will welcome you in, give you a map, explain where to meet for tours and provide details of the current exhibitions. Of course everyone will have different highlights, depending on what they see as "art", however these are five main attractions which catch my eye every time I visit - will they be yours?

national gallery of australia, canberra, ACT, sculpture garden, sculptures, art,
Admire art and sculpture inside and outside the National Gallery of Australia


1/ The Permanent Exhibitions
(at the time of writing) are Pacific Arts, Asian Art, Australian Art and European and American Art. Viewing the historical and religious Asian stone sculptures, Australian colonial art, modern abstract and iconic paintings by Monet or Sidney Nolan, for example, is an experience to savour. Take a seat on the benches provided and take a moment to enjoy the colour, texture and scale of these well known artworks, which always look different than how they appear in two dimensional photos.

Another highlight on ground level is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art permanent collection which comprises of over 7500 works. The artworks are displayed near the entrance to capture the natural sunlight, which is how these artworks would be viewed. The Aboriginal Memorial in particular is an interesting work, consisting of 200 hollow log coffins from central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Each pole represents a year of European occupation and together they form a memorial for lives lost during the colonial occupation between 1788 - 1988. See here for details.

aboriginal and torres strait islander memorial, national art gallery of australia, canberra, ACT, best, art, sculpture
The Aboriginal Memorial, created in 1987–88 by 43 Aboriginal artists. Source: National Gallery of Australia website


national gallery of australia, canberra, ACT, cafes, art, sculpture garden,
Take a seat and enjoy each artwork. Source: National Gallery of Australia Facebook


2/ Temporary and Blockbuster Exhibitions
are an attraction each year, with many iconic names and periods of history on display for months at a time. For example, the Summer blockbuster exhibition for 2015 featured Tom Roberts and in 2016 it is Versailles: Treasures from the Palace. Each of these exhibitions has an entry price to get in and there are a variety of ways to extend the whole experience. Perhaps view it before or after a High Tea, sumptuous lunch, talk with the curator or take a personalised tour specialising in a particular interest. See the What's On calendar to see what is planned for each exhibition and events all year around.

If you have kids, there is also a free children's activity area set up with each exhibition, called NGA Play. This will change a few times a year, as the large exhibitions change.

versailles, canberra, national gallery of australia, ACT, art, sculpture, exhibitions
Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, 2016. Source: Original images supplied by National Gallery of Australia Facebook


3/ The Sculpture Garden is located behind the National Art Gallery. Explore the meandering pathways and view the 26 sculptures positioned on their own, featured in a garden or as a vision in front of Lake Burley Griffin. A favourite of the garden is "Fog sculpture" (1976) by Fujiko Nakaya which is an interactive sculpture that operates between 12:30pm - 2pm every day. Thousands of tiny jets emit a fine spray of water or "fog", which is cool to walk through and a favourite with kids - especially in Summer. This fog then settles over the nearby pond, which also has an artwork called "Heads from the North" by Dadang Christanto (2004) which consists of 66 human head sculptures suspended above the water. The result is eerily surreal. See here for details on the Sculpture Garden. For a full article on "Fog sculpture", see here.

sculpture garden, national gallery of australia, canberra, national gallery of australia, ACT, canberra, art, sculpture
The beauty of the NGA Sculpture Garden


4/ Skyspace: Within without (2010)
by James Turrell is found out the front of the gallery, blended into the surrounding grassy landscape. James Turrell has a number of other Skyspaces around the world, where the aim of the structure and artwork is to view the sky from a different perspective. Walk down into the domed structure, which has grass growing over the outer surface, and be surprised by what lays within. Inside is a complete contrast of materials with a towering basalt stone dome that you walk around to find the entrance of the Skyspace. It is here that you sit on a heated bench and look up and view the sky through a hole in the dome. Although it is a spectacular experience at any time of day, the NGA website names the optimum time of viewing each day, with the light and sun positioned as the artist intended. See here for details of the Skyspace. For a full article of Skyspace: Within without (2010), see here.

james turrell, skyspace, within without, canberra, ACT, national gallery of australia, gallery, art
Walk down into Skyspace - Within Without (2010), by James Turrell


james turrell, skyspace, within without, canberra, ACT, national gallery of australia, gallery, art
The surprising interior


5/ NGA Café is a much-needed place to rest and recharge the batteries, before heading out the doors to explore again. It has a range of light bites as well as substantial meals such as pot pies, home made sausage rolls and lasagne. It is an impressive space to sit in, with floor to ceiling banners highlighting the current exhibition as well as leafy views out into the Sculpture Garden. This art gallery takes a long time to explore, so this café is a highlight on each visit to at least enjoy a coffee or light snack before continuing on. See details here. For a full article on the NGA Café, see here.

This is just a taste of what you can discover at the National Gallery of Australia. My last tip - forget the map and just start exploring. The anticipation of what you may find around each corner, or down a mystery ramp, will make the experience even more memorable. Who knows what treasures of your own you will discover?

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Recharge your batteries at the NGA Cafe

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Why? Create your own memories at the National Gallery of Australia
When: The National Gallery is open daily 10am–5pm (closed Christmas Day)
Phone: 02 6240 6411
Website: nga.gov.au
Where: National Museum of Australia, Parkes Place, Parkes ACT 2600
Cost: Free entry. Blockbuster exhibitions have an entry fee.
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