Betty Churcher, the arts administrator nicknamed “Betty Blockbuster” for the record-breaking exhibitions she created during her time as director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has died. She was 84.
Brisbane-born Elizabeth Churcher was the NGA’s director between 1990 and 1997 and widely adored by her colleagues and the public alike for her ability to explain the joy of art, compelling audiences to take a closer look, especially through her ABC TV series, Take Five and Hidden Treasures, as well as a series of books.
She was a fine artist in her own right, along with her husband Roy, and later, her son Peter, an Archibald prize finalist, but stepped aside for motherhood.
After Churcher began to lose her sight to macular degeneration in 2006, the turning point came in 2008 while standing in front of a Degas painting at the NGA. She knew it well, but could not see it properly. Devastated but determined, she retreated to her mind’s eye to continue a lifetime of sketching. She was left with limited vision in one eye, blinded by an ocular melanoma.
“Once I draw a painting I can close my eyes and see it exactly,” she told The Australian
Churcher had natural talent, but her love of art emerged in visits to the Queensland Art Gallery and the patronage of her private girls school, despite her Scottish-born travelling salesman father’s objections to educating women. She became an art teacher, to cover the school fees that allowed her to graduate then received a scholarship to study art in London. She met Roy in London. After four boys, she turned her hand to teaching, arts management and criticism, as well as completing her Masters at London’s Courtauld Institute in half the time it takes everyone else.
She was dean of art at Melbourne’s Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT), and chair of the Australia Council’s visual arts board, when the Art Gallery of Western Australia chairman Robert Holmes a Court lured her to Perth as director in 1987. But the tempestuous entrepreneur, Australia first billionaire, was difficult to work for.
“I don’t think that I have ever tried to please anyone more or pleased anyone less,” she said in her 2011 memoir, Notebooks, which features drawings she made at Europe’s great galleries, in order to commit her favourite works to memory as her eyesight failed.
She didn’t think of applying for the NGA director’s job, but when approached, headed to Canberra just a few months before Holmes a Court died of a heart attack, aged 53.
Churcher faced an unenviable task, walking into the NGA after the 20-year rule of founding director James Mollison, just the government’s austerity measures bit hard for the first time and the gallery began redundancies.
She also ruffled feathers by vetoing plans to have NGA chairman and former PM Gough Whitlam, dressed in a toga and then in his 70s, “walk on water” – via a plank across the sculpture garden’s lake – to launch an exhibition. Whitlam didn’t know about the plan until Churcher told him, but responded “Comrade, that would not be possible. The stigmata have not yet healed”.
Churcher changed the name (from Australian National Gallery) and set about fixing the leaky roof that made the building a national joke. She also acquired Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summer for $3.5 million.
But it was her talent for creating exhibitions that people loved which earned her the nickname Betty Blockbuster (a nod to Reg Livermore’s outrageous 70s music-theatre show). She picked the surge in popularity for Impressionism with shows such as Monet and Japan, then there was Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, and a massive Turner retrospective. Each one broke box office records.
But it took its toll, admitting she had a headache every day of her tenure.
Asked in her final interview, with Leigh Sales on 7.30 earlier this month, what lessons she’d like to pass on, Churcher said:
Act on what you believe to be right at the time and don’t worry about: is it the right thing or is it the wrong thing or will this person be upset or will that person? If you know it’s right, go for it. Another thing is to – they say fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Well I’m the fool, but I’m glad I’m a fool because I’ve rushed in and done things that seem on the surface to be almost impossible.
After stepping down as NGA director, aged 66, Churcher’s natural charm and warm smile were put to good use in a series of TV programs that made art accessible to everyone.
When the NGA staged the Turner from the Tate exhibition in 2013, she wrote a children’s book, Adam & Sarah Explore Turner, about two kids from one painting with the magical ability to jump out of it and explore other works by the artist.
Australian Notebooks, her final book, was released last year. Her husband Roy, died late last year.
Betty Churcher is survived by her four sons, seven grandchildren and the love for art she passed on to a nation.
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