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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Caroline Turner is a Senior Research Fellow, Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University. More on Caroline Turner

International exhibitions
by Caroline Turner


More than the entire current population of Australia has visited major international exhibitions at Australian museums in the last 30 years. [1] Australian museums, and in particular art museums, have been transformed by the advent of these international exhibitions. International ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have created sophisticated and appreciative audiences. They have increased professionalism at every level in Australian museums, and created a paradigm shift in the way museums operate within their communities and public programming.

While it is problematic to identify exhibitions as highly significant only from attendances, inevitably a study of international exhibitions becomes a study of the so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions; overwhelmingly in the twentieth century these were shown in state and national art museums, even when the subject matter could equally suggest a science, history or ethnography museum. It goes without saying that exhibitions about Australian subjects, particularly of Indigenous culture in this country, and exhibitions sent by Australia abroad are equally significant in the history of this nation. What follows is inevitably a compression of a complex subject. [2]

Australian art museums [3] borrowed from overseas to supplement their collections and to show new developments in international art. They could never hope to achieve sufficient depth through collecting alone, although the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with its Felton Bequest and wealth derived from the goldfields very early built a most distinguished collection of international art. Nevertheless, some very significant exhibitions have been shown in non-art museums, especially at the Australian Museum in Sydney. In the twenty-first century the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney with exhibitions such as The Great Wall of China (2006–2007), the National Library of Australia with its hugely successful Treasures of the World’s Great Libraries (2001–2002), the National Museum of Australia (NMA) since opening in 2001, the National Portrait Gallery and the Australian National Maritime Museum have all developed international programs.

Conventional wisdom records the age of the blockbuster as beginning in Australia with the series of international exhibitions inaugurated at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) from the early 1990s; but it is much more accurately dated to the 1970s, especially to Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse organised by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 1975 and to the Chinese exhibition of 1977, The Chinese Exhibition: a selection of recent archaeological finds of  the People’s Republic of China. The history of international exhibitions in Australia, however, spans more than a century. It is a fascinating history: attendances at many nineteenth-century exhibitions (which included artworks) numbered in the hundreds of thousands; in 1906 William Holman Hunt’s religious painting, the Light of the World, was seen by an estimated four million people in Australia and New Zealand. Audiences have frequently been more adventurous than those who ran cultural institutions – an example being the enthusiastic public reception for the Herald exhibition of contemporary art in 1939 which had been rejected by the NGV. [4] The history of this engagement with international exhibitions suggests a people who felt a ‘tyranny of distance’ and were interested in the new – not simply clinging to the familiar past of the places they had left as emigrants or to the cultures of Europe, in which the great majority of the population had their roots.

From very early on the Australian populace has shown a great interest in culture and art from outside this country and from very diverse sources, including our near neighbours. Australia has been very successful in attracting loans. This reveals much about the image Australia projected to the world – of a new frontier and of enthusiastic audiences and of professional knowledge. The quality of international exhibitions since the 1970s has been extremely high, driven by curators and scholars within Australia and by sophisticated audiences, often well educated and much travelled, and, from the 1940s onwards, increasingly multicultural.

As might be expected, a history of international exhibitions in Australia reveals a predominant early interest in British, North American and European culture (especially French art) but also a surprising number of exhibitions from other parts of the world, including Latin America and the Middle East. [5]

Apart from exhibitions on eighteenth-century voyages of discovery at the Australian Museum in 1970 during the Bicentenary year of 1988, Cook’s Pacific Encounters at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in 2006, and Headlands in 1992 (Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)), there have been surprisingly few exhibitions on the Pacific and few trans-Tasman exchanges. There has been an early interest in the arts of Asia: as many as 20 per cent of the exhibitions shown in Australia since 1975 have been Asian in content and have held their own in popularity with European exhibitions. Australians have understood the importance of cultural diplomacy with our Asian neighbours, including sending Australian exhibitions to China. [6] A distinction should be made also between those exhibitions developed and curated in Australia and exhibitions developed overseas.

The story of international exhibitions in Australia has largely been a story of Canberra and the state capitals; blockbusters have predominantly followed larger east coast populations. While a majority of exhibitions have been organised by the NGV, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and NGA, the Art Galleries of South Australia (AGSA), Queensland (QAG), Western Australia (AGWA) and MCA have all organised major international exhibitions and outstanding exhibitions have been initiated by all states: for example, John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG); and Speaking with Cloths by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). Many exhibitions have been developed for Australian audiences, curated by Australians, and have catalogues written by Australian scholars. There has been considerable collaboration between institutions, in part because high costs have dictated the need for multiple venues. A major development was the national and international coordination undertaken by the Australian Gallery Directors’ Council (AGDC) and the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council in the 1970s, and the International Cultural Corporation of Australia (ICCA), later Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA), from the 1980s.  Both federal and state governments have been significant: the ‘age of the blockbuster’ would not have been possible without government support through indemnification provided by the Australian government from the 1970s and later by individual states, meaning that huge insurance premiums did not have to be paid. The Australian government’s Indemnity Scheme had the result of encouraging a geographical spread of venues. Other important external players in facilitating exhibitions have included the British and French governments and MoMA’s International Council.

If one were to attempt to name the most important international exhibitions in Australia’s history there would inevitably be different contenders, but the list would include the earlier exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art in 1939 and Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse in 1975 because of their impact on Australian art developments. The most significant portent for the future of art exhibitions in Australia was the reception accorded the display of The Chinese Exhibition in 1977, when 595,000 visitors marvelled at these works of Chinese genius.

In the years following the Second World War new immigrants, especially from Europe, including talented refugees from Hitler’s regime, played a role in changing Australian tastes. In 1953 more than 200,000 people in Sydney and Melbourne alone – the exhibition also went to Perth, Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide – came to see French Painting Today, [7] and exhibitions of Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Canadian, German, Scandinavian, American, Malaysian and Pakistani art and culture, as well as of works by Turner, Bonnard, Picasso and Surrealist artists in the next two decades, augured a major and exciting change for Australian museums. The 1960s saw several important British/European/American exhibitions. In 1974 came the national tour of the NGA’s newly purchased painting by Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, which aroused great interest and much controversy.

The Chinese Exhibition in 1977, The Entombed Warriors in 1982–1983 and the Chinese Dinosaurs of 1984 also had considerable impact. The Sydney Biennales which began in 1973 were vital in developing knowledge of international contemporary art, as were the Asia-Pacific Triennials at QAG from 1993. There have been a host of other exhibitions, including smaller non-blockbuster exhibitions, which have been significant. Two examples are the exhibitions of Scandinavian contemporary design which came to Australia from the 1960s and which, as Robert Bell has shown, had an enduring impact on design consciousness and craft in Australia, [8] and the vibrant series of exchanges with Asian countries organised by Asialink from 1991.

In the early years of the exhibitions, including blockbusters, fees were generally not paid to institutions sending loan exhibitions – the exhibitions were based on scholarly exchange. While cultural diplomacy was a significant motivator, a web of individual relationships and networks built by museums and individuals underpinned each exhibition. Australian scholarship was vital in negotiating loans, and Australian professionalism in handling and displaying works earned the respect of lending museums. The contributions of a host of highly talented Australian museum directors, curators and scholars cannot be overstated in achieving the high quality of exhibitions.

There were many reasons why museums moved so enthusiastically to take international exhibitions. These include the potential to attract new audiences, connecting with international scholarship, researching existing collections and enhancing those collections through admission charges, merchandise, donations and sponsorships, and perhaps above all raising the profile of the institution with government and the public. While there were commercial and diplomatic pressures to have international exhibitions, there were equally overwhelming scholarly and artistic reasons. As well, the popular success of such exhibitions has assisted art museums to argue to government for new buildings – or at least for new facilities. Australian museums at first were not prepared for the public response to blockbuster exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975 at AGNSW the sewerage became blocked during the Modern Masters exhibition, and visitors to QAG in 1983 wore paths in new parquetry floors for the Entombed Warriors. [9] The NGA, when it opened in 1982, had no large-scale temporary exhibition space in which to show major exhibitions. The intention of the first Director, James Mollison, was that the Gallery would focus on its own collection, but public demand soon necessitated a change in policy and a new temporary exhibitions wing. The advent of the blockbusters resulted in better facilities and new staff. Public demand also transformed the nature of education services: new types of public programs had to be developed, aimed at servicing new types of visitors.

The most dramatic result of the blockbuster phenomenon has been the increased professionalism of museums and the changed power relationships between professional staff and boards of trustees, resulting in a professional ‘takeover’ of the art museums which had been dominated until the 1970s by their powerful boards of trustees appointed by state governments. [10] It soon became apparent that overseas museums needed to deal with their professional colleagues, and that directors and curatorial staff needed to travel and to have control of decision making in critical operational areas. [11] The networks established with museums and lenders overseas were forged through scholarship and shared with others, including art practitioners in Australia. Increased professionalism led some staff to question the expenditure of time and resources on collections from ‘other peoples’ museums’, rather than from permanent collections. [12] The insatiable appetite of the public for blockbusters was the deciding factor.

Audiences were no longer desperate for novelty, but they were impressively prepared to broaden their horizons of acceptance of artworks from other than Europe. A paradigm shift had occurred. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had already sent an exhibition, Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse in 1975, comprising 115 works by 58 artists. The Trustees of the AGNSW suggested tentatively that this was ‘perhaps the largest group of major paintings ever to have been seen in Australia’. [13] It was undoubtedly the largest group of artworks seen in the country since the European Art Exhibition for Australia in 1923, and the standard of the works was far superior. As Leon Paroissien has pointed out, it set an artistic benchmark from which other international exhibitions would be judged.

The age of the blockbuster had arrived, and with it the need for more professional organisation of international exhibitions. The Modern Masters exhibition had been organised with MoMA through its International Council. Since the 1960s this had been important as a source of exhibitions for Australia. [14] The Australian Gallery Directors’ Council (AGDC) in conjunction with the newly formed Visual Arts Board (VAB) of the Australia Council also emerged as an extremely important partnership in the 1970s. The AGDC cooperated with the VAB in a number of exhibitions, including Australian art exhibitions, but the AGDC disbanded in 1981. The VAB under founding Director Leon Paroissien played an impressive and critical role in organising international exhibitions and promoting the concept of government indemnity until a new agency was created to manage exhibitions – the International Cultural Corporation of Australia (later AEA).

The first few years of the blockbuster era had been inspiring. In the 1980s there were more Chinese exhibitions attracting large audiences, including The Entombed Warriors in 1982–83.  It was the first international exhibition to be shown at the new NGA, where it attracted 50,000 people in nine days.

These exhibitions were the product of the new Australian Government Indemnity Scheme [15] and the successor to the ADGC set up by the Australian government to coordinate exhibitions in 1980 – the ICCA headed by Robert Edwards who created its vision and purpose. Its role was to manage significant exhibitions of ‘cultural and historical interest relating to art, science and antiquities, working in close co-operation with Australian and overseas museums.’ [16] The ICCA received a total of $1 million in funding from the Australian government between 1980 and 1983, but after that its programs became self-supporting through sponsorship, admission fees and merchandising. Over the next 25 years it staged an impressive 57 exhibitions, attracting more than 10 million visitors; raised $42 million in sponsorships; and started a million-dollar foundation. [17] It changed its name to Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA) in 1991, reflecting the predominance of art museums in the arena of international exhibitions.

In the 1980s the AGNSW took a major lead in presenting Asian exhibitions. The NGV at the time had the more important collection of Asian art, but it was the AGNSW that began to present an array of exciting Asian historical exhibitions, including from China, Japan and India, and to build a highly significant Asian collection. The new QAG opened in 1982 as part of the striking new Queensland Cultural Centre. Excellent audiences in Brisbane quickly established QAG as a venue for AEA exhibitions, but QAG had from the early 1980s also begun to negotiate its own exhibitions including from Japan, China and France. From the early 1980s Asia – and particularly contemporary Asia – became a focus, culminating in 1993 in the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art. [18] These exhibitions developed a specific strategy to educate audiences about the dynamic changes taking place in the region, and to demonstrate that Australia in its world view is no longer solely a Euro-Americentric country.

Although the NGA held some very important international exhibitions in the 1980s, when Betty Churcher became Director in 1990 she inaugurated a major policy shift of curating major international exhibitions. This became a hallmark of the NGA in Churcher’s time. Her aim was to present exhibitions which led to research into works held in the NGA and other Australian collections – Rubens and the Italian Renaissance (1992) was a prime example, as well as Surrealism: revolution by night (1993). The NGA also assisted the devastated Cambodian National Museum, receiving in return the exhibition The Age of Angkor in 1992, and mounted several very successful exhibitions in the 1990s, including the challenging Don’t leave me this way: art in the age of AIDS (1994).

Another new player had emerged: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney, opened in 1991 through the extraordinary efforts of an idealistic few who were convinced that Australia needed a museum of contemporary art. [19] With initial capital funding and a percentage of operating costs from the University of Sydney and the University’s Power Bequest, and under Founding Director Leon Paroissien and Chief Curator Bernice Murphy it initiated a new type of Australian museum, one without major government funding and thus pursuing an entrepreneurial model for funding, as well as a dynamic new style of international contemporary exhibitions with a focus on critical writing about contemporary issues – including social and political issues – and extensive public programming. The MCA showed works and exhibitions that were experimental, often edgy, such as the 1995 Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, and major exhibitions of Australian Indigenous and contemporary international art from New Zealand, Europe, Latin America and Asia.

The established state institutions continued to curate important and scholarly exhibitions. One of the most popular was Classic Cezanne (1998) which attracted 188,000 visitors. AGNSW Director Edmund Capon hailed it as a demonstration of the will of the Gallery to initiate and produce major exhibitions of sustained quality, its capacity to do so now being sustained by the NSW Treasury Managed Indemnification Scheme. [20] Similar schemes emerged in Victoria and Queensland, reflecting renewed competition – the new 2003 Victorian scheme provides a staggering two billion dollars in indemnity but requires exclusivity for Victoria. [21] AEA, which had been vital in assisting the state museums to develop their professionalism and enabled many of the smaller institutions to receive important international exhibitions, continues to be of great significance as a national exhibitions management agency, including for the opening of the new National Museum of Australia in 2001. Some directors of art institutions have suggested they did not need AEA. Edmund Capon pointed to his success with Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and his world, shown at the AGNSW and the NGV in 2003–04, which drew 212,000 visitors. [22]

The dawn of the twenty-first century saw some exciting exhibitions, particularly the series of Asian exhibitions at the AGNSW on Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam which attracted new audiences, among them many young people, and were aimed at a greater understanding of Asian religions and immigrant groups in Australia. [23]

NGA Director Ron Radford has observed that Australia has had more blockbuster exhibitions than it can justify as a lender. Why has Australia been able to show so many exhibitions and to obtain so many loans? There has undoubtedly been a belief among the world’s great museums that Australia is a new frontier, and that the population has fewer opportunities than those in Europe or North America – clearly the appetite for, and appreciation of, loans from foreign collections has been enormous. Close links with Britain, Europe, North America and Asia have helped. Trade and diplomatic reasons existed for many exhibitions. Curators have wanted to come to Australia and, as Bernice Murphy has noted, Australia has not been merely ‘a cultural receiver’. It is also important to note that, to borrow exceptional works the rationale and scholarship of the exhibitions for which the loans are sought has to be very high. But increasing effort is now required for loans, and costs are becoming almost prohibitive. The more prosperous East Asian and Middle Eastern countries can now afford to pay large fees. NGV Director Gerard Vaughan has concluded that the golden age of the blockbuster in its classical form – the all-encompassing format – is passing, and it may be necessary in the future for galleries to concentrate more on their own collections. [24] Yet the NGV also announced in 2007 its hopes for a whole new building for Indigenous, Oceanic and Asian art (and to include temporary exhibition space) having opened its $100 million new site at Federation Square only five years before. [25] As Paroissien has noted, the demise of the blockbuster has long been wrongly predicted, and AEA Chief Executive Carol Henry remains optimistic about the future of international exhibitions.

While it could be argued that many international exhibitions contribute to scholarship and are greatly appreciated by audiences, not all actually contribute to expanding popular taste or knowledge about the world or Australian society. Most exhibitions continue to be drawn predominantly from a narrow period of Western European art history, but exhibitions such as the AGNSW’s Buddha: Radiant Awakening have reached beyond this traditional focus. New players are emerging, especially in the non-art museums. Australian curators and scholars continue to put together ideas for exhibitions that are exciting, new and contribute to knowledge. As Jackie Menzies has pointed out, the skills and knowledge in the Australian community – from academics to immigrant artists – can be harnessed in developing exhibitions. [26] And Australians undoubtedly still want to see international exhibitions.

The author thanks Leon Paroissien, Des Griffin, Bernice Murphy, Jackie Menzies, Anne Kirker, Robert Edwards and Carol Henry, curators and librarians at all named institutions, and Harry Wise and Glen St John Barclay for invaluable assistance with research. Key statistical information was prepared by Harry Wise.


1 Art Indemnity Australia states that 20 million Australians have seen indemnified exhibitions since 1979, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, ‘Art Indemnity Australia’, <> (accessed 3/10/07). Director of the NGA, Ron Radford, suggested at the 2007 Museums Australia conference (18 May) that 25 million Australians had seen ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions since the 1970s. Research for this essay suggests Radford’s figure is realistic.

2 Between five and 10 per cent of the exhibitions which have achieved high attendances, such as Golden Summers (1985–86) were Australian in content, but most did not achieve the attendances of the major international exhibitions. Many fine international exhibitions have also been shown at regional and university galleries and museums.

3 I apply the term ‘art museum’ in this chapter.

4 See Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts: the 1939 Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2005; Jeremy Maas, Holman Hunt and the Light of the World, Scolar Press, London and Berkeley, 1984; and Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan and Elizabeth Willis (eds), Seize the Day: exhibitions, Australia and the world, Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2008.

5 Based on figures in museum annual reports, about 35 per cent of very popular exhibitions dealt with European and American art after the late eighteenth century, slightly under 10 per cent dealt with European art from before the late eighteenth century, and about 10 per cent included European and American art from both before and after the late eighteenth century. Overall, major exhibitions from other cultures seem to have been roughly comparable in popularity with European/American exhibitions in terms of attendances. Attendances did reflect whether these were paid exhibitions – most international exhibitions have had a charge to cover costs. These statistics are based on listings of attendances from annual reports of the major state and national museums in Australia and do not take regional museums into account. Attendance figures are not given for all exhibitions, and these statistics are an estimate only and cannot be regarded as definitive.

6 There were occasional exhibitions of Asian contemporary art prior to the 1980s, including The Hiroshima Panels, 1958.

7 Report of the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Together with Statement of Accounts for 1953, Alfred Henry Pettifer, Government Printer, Sydney, 1955, p. 1; Report of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria with statement of income and expenditure for the year ended 30th June, 1953, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1953, p. 2.

8 Robert Bell, ‘Nordic Wave: A Study of the Reception and Influence of Scandinavian Design in Australia’,unpublished dissertation, 2007.

9 Sources for these anecdotes are Leon Paroissien for Modern Masters and the author’s personal experience for Entombed Warriors.

10 Paroissien, Bernice Murphy and Des Griffin in discussions with the author.

11 One major impact, as Paroissien notes, was the expertise they brought with them: the English scholar Edmund Capon came to Australia with the first Chinese exhibition and returned as Director of the AGNSW in 1978.

12 The Art Museums Association invited leading scholar Albert Elsen to debate the subject. Albert Elsen, ‘The Pros and Cons of the ‘Blockbuster’ Art Exhibition: a paper delivered at the CAMA Conference, Adelaide, October 1984’, Art Museums Association of Australia occasional papers.

13 Report of the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 1975. D. West, Government Printer, Sydney, 1977, p. 20.

14 Such MoMA exhibitions include Two Decades of American Painting (1967), Surrealism (1972), and Picasso, Master Printmaker (1973). 

15 See Leon Paroissien, ‘Art Museum Patronage through Government Indemnity: the Australia scheme, its context and application’, unpublished, n.d.

16 Art Exhibitions Australia Limited Annual Report 1999, Art Exhibitions Australia Limited, Sydney, p. 3.

17 Ibid.

18 Caroline Turner, ‘Cultural Transformations in the Asia-Pacific’, in John Clark, Maurizio Peleggi and TK Sabapathy (eds), Eye of the Beholder, University of Sydney East Asia Series, Sydney, No. 15, Wild Peony Press, 2006, pp. 221–243.    

19 See Bernice Murphy, Museum of Contemporary Art: Vision and Context, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1993; and Leon Paroissien, ‘Contemporary Art in an Antipodean Context’, paper presented at IV Foro Internacional de Teoria Sobre Arte Contemporaneo, Guadalajara, Mexico, 1–3 June 1995.

20 Art Gallery of NSW Annual Report 1998, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, p. 5.

21 Gerard Vaughan, Museums Australia Conference, 2007.

22 Lauren Martin, ‘A case for passing on the buck’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 2005, accessed 3 October 2007, <> . 

23 Head of Asian Art, AGNSW, Jackie Menzies has noted that ‘Museums are a space of connection with the community’.  Many visitors come through public programs, e.g. the Durga Puja ritual for Goddesses, Menzies, Museums Australia Conference, 2007.

24 Gerard Vaughan, Museums Australia Conference, 2007. Radford in the same forum pointed to the excellent collections in Australia including those of British art, small but important collections of Old and Modern European Masters, the American Collections and Asian textiles of the NGA, and Indian miniatures at the NGV.

25 Paroissien, Radford, Vaughan, Menzies, Museums Australia Conference, 2007. For NGV see The Age, 22 September 2007.

26 Ibid.

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Cite as: Caroline Turner, 2011, 'International exhibitions', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, 2011, published online at
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