Design in the National Capital

I spoke in parliament this evening about a bill to give the National Portrait Gallery its own piece of legislation.
National Portrait Gallery of Australia Bill, 11 September 2012

It is my pleasure to follow the member for Hinkler and to agree with so much of what he had to say in his very articulate speech. There is much that divides us in this place, but I think it is often the arts which can bring us together. I particularly appreciated the member for Hinkler's comments about the great wisdom and prescience of the Whitlam government.

The National Portrait Gallery was something I remember first thinking about when I lived as a whippersnapper in London for a number of years. I was there on my own and loved the opportunity to visit the British National Portrait Gallery. It has that great combination of art and history you get in a portrait gallery. Wandering amidst the portraits there, I remember thinking to myself, 'It would be great if Australia had one of these.' As previous speakers have noted, Tom Roberts had had that idea in the early 1900s, but it was not until much later, 1999, that Australia got its National Portrait Gallery.

For its first ten years, the National Portrait Gallery was in Old Parliament House—a beautiful venue but not one which was created as an art space. The new National Portrait Gallery space is a unique spot. You get that sense of what an interesting location it is going to be when you approach it and see the imbalance of the architecture on the front—it looks as if it is not possible for the cantilever to hold up. Then, as soon as you enter, you are struck by portraits which range right through Australian history, such as Ah Xian's ceramic bust of John Yu, Bill Henson's triptych of Simone Young and Howard Arkley's portrait of Nick Cave.

Mr Neville interjecting—

Dr LEIGH:  As the member for Hinkler points out, it is the way the light strikes those works which really makes it such a success—as is the case in any great gallery space.

I have two favourite portraits at the gallery. One, in common with the member for Hinkler, is the portrait of Michael Kirby by Ralph Heimans. I was associate to Michael Kirby at the time the portrait was done and it sat in the corner of his office for the first few months while he wandered forwards and backwards past it, trying to work out what he thought of it. It is of course not the most modest of portraits. It portrays the judge as, I think, a sort of Romanesque figure standing out—the only one facing the artist—amidst an array of judges. I think it is quite befitting of Michael Kirby's career as a judge—constantly with his face to us, not just writing the judgements but engaging the polity.

My other favourite portrait is the one of Deborah Mailman painted by Evert Ploeg. Deborah Mailman is just looking directly at the viewer with a sense of boldness and a sense of power. There is such strength coming out of the portrait.

The National Portrait Gallery is engaged in digital portraiture as well. My favourite portraits, I confess, are the oils, but so many of the new portraits these days are screen based digital portraits. On 2 August, the National Portrait Gallery announced the inaugural winner of its $10,000 iD Digital Portraiture Award. The artist judged to have made the most outstanding screen based digital portrait was Laura Moore. Her portrait was titled Animation 1. Other finalists were Aaron James McGarry, Nina Mulhall, Clare Thackway and Bridget Walker. Those portraits can be viewed in the National Portrait Gallery until 28 October.

This bill gives the National Portrait Gallery its own piece of legislation. That will be important, as previous speakers have noted, in allowing the gallery to stand on its own two feet and to engage, as the other cultural institutions do, with other entities and with other government departments. As the member for Canberra eloquently noted in her speech, the National Portrait Gallery will be involved in the extraordinary Centenary of Canberra celebrations which start next year. The theme of the Centenary of Canberra, curated by the energetic Robyn Archer is: 'seed now, blossom in 2013, flower for another hundred years'.

Not surprisingly, the National Portrait Gallery is involved in the centenary as well. It is going to feature a number of exhibitions coinciding with centenary themes through next year. A particular highlight will be Elvis at 21, an exhibition toured by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service, with Canberra the only Australian venue. It consists of a collection of photos of Elvis Presley that are 'remarkably candid, intimate and fresh' according to the publicity material.

Although it is not at the Portrait Gallery, the Portrait of a Nation project will form part of the Canberra centenary celebrations. Portrait of a Nation will remind Canberrans that our nation's rich history lies in our street and suburb names. Portrait of a Nation, for which I am one of the spokespeople, will encourage Canberrans to rediscover the significant national figures after whom their streets and suburbs are named and learn a little bit more about the history of those people, perhaps even make a family link. For example, the relatives of one of those people might attend a Christmas celebration in your street which is named after that person.

If Canberra were a person, I think it would be an egalitarian patriot, someone who understands the past but is not bound by it—and the National Portrait Gallery is very much part of that. It recognises our rich history and the great value of design in nourishing the soul as well as the mind.

Another design event recently brought to the national capital was the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects national landscape architecture awards, which I attended with pleasure last week. I want to briefly acknowledge the award winners. The 2012 Australian Medal for Landscape Architecture went to UDLA. The AILA National Landscape Architecture Award of Excellence went to Plan (E). Other awards went to Jeavons Landscape Architects for their Clifton Hill railway project and to Fresh Landscape Design for their Roogulli project in Bywong, New South Wales. ASPECT Studios won an award for their innovative work at Pirrama Park and another for their project at Jack Evans Boat Harbour in Tweed Heads. Andrew Green received an award for their SW1 project; Ecoscape Australia, for Mueller Park Universal Playspace; Vee Design for the Robelle Domain in Ipswich; and McGregor Coxall, for the Australian Garden and the new entry of the National Gallery of Australia—and it is great to see such high-quality design here in the nation's capital.

Taylor Cullity Lethlean received an award for their Wild Sea exhibit at Melbourne Zoo. They are a really innovative firm of landscape architects. I know they are still mourning principal Kevin Taylor, who, tragically, died in a car crash last year. He was an alchemy of extraordinary qualities, being not only a great designer but also an extraordinary teacher.

Spackman Mossop Michaels received an award for the Humanities and Science Campus in the Parliamentary Triangle; John Mongard Landscape Architects, for Bingara and the Living Classroom; UDLA, for the Kimberley LNG precinct strategic assessment report; and the City of Bendigo, for the Bendigo Botanic Gardens Master Plan. Harris Hobbs received an award for the Bonner P-6 School and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Learning and Cultural Centre, a project in my own electorate of Fraser. Clouston Associates received an award for the Clarence River Way master plan; and Fitzgerald Frisby Landscape Architecture, for Lollipop Creek.

Zoe Metherell received a research and communication award for a comparative study on Melbourne's freeway planting designs; Oxigen Landscape Architects, for Green Infrastructure; HASSELL, for their project, Local-area Envisioning and Sustainability scoring system; Spackman Mossop Michaels, for their Chinatown Public Domain Plan, a really innovative re-design of Sydney's Chinatown area; and Taylor Cullity Lethlean, for their Victoria Square project. There were also two leadership awards, which went to Lucinda Hartley and Gweneth Leigh. I would like to acknowledge the national jurors who worked to select the award winners: Niall Simpson, Paul Harding, Alison Breach, Catherine Brouwer, Gary Rake and Catriona McLeod. Again, it was a great showcasing of design here in the national capital.

So much of what makes Canberra extraordinary is that meld of design and history of which the National Portrait Gallery is such a strong part and one that I am enormously proud to be engaged in as a Canberran. I commend the bill to the House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.