Canberra Tales: NGA steps to nowhere


The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) opened its new wing in 2010 and amongst several key improvements was the realignment of the main front entrance.

This new southern entrance makes sense and is totally logical. It has not always been so.

The former entrance was via a ramp that was a bit of puzzle to the uninitiated. Many tourists would stop and wonder where the real entrance was. The unlucky ones used to stop near the southern side of the building as they came across from the main car park.

Unfortunately this piece of bitumen was also the main delivery entrance road and it was not uncommon to see tourist and truck eyeing off each other. Usually the truck won! But even this obscure entrance was not the original.

Go back several decades. As the building was being built, the original design allowed for the main entrance via two ceremonial flights of stairs. These stairs were to be on the northwest side of the building and I have read that there was an ambition to have visitors arrive at the lakeside of the building. Maybe there was to be some form of royal barge operating to bring people across the lake.

Unfortunately for those with such architectural ambitions, the then planners quietly changed the layout of the streets around the new gallery and high court making the entrance from the lakeside almost redundant.

But it was too late for the staircase. They were already in place.

Today if you make your way from the underground car park and walk to the northwest corner, you will find the magnificent staircase. There the two flights of stairs sit waiting for someone, anyone, to use them.

When the gallery was opened, apparently the Queen made her way up them, but since then, not many souls have found the stairs, let alone floated up them in royal style.


At the moment the gallery has one artwork on the higher steps. Rather than having a grand stairway to nowhere, maybe the gallery could reuse the steps as an extension of their sculpture park.

The NGA could introduce a range of commissioned artworks upon the steps so the space becomes an outside maze of sculptural pieces for visitors to enjoy whether the gallery is open of not. It would then become a popular photo-stop for anyone and everyone and provide fun to be had by all amongst a staircase of art outside.

Instead of steps to nowhere, it would then be a ‘stairway to heaven’.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

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