Sidney Nolan

Review: Visual Arts

The Nolan Collection at the Canberra Museum and Gallery

Canberra has been blessed with two major collections of Sidney Nolan. One is on permanent exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. There is also the important special collection at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG)


I recommend a visit to the Canberra Museum and Gallery to see this collection (and at times maybe the other exhibits). Although you may have to bring in your own chairs to spend any time in this exhibition. I am not sure who thought that to perch on those silly vinyl foot-stools in the middle of the room would enhance a visit.

From the Museum’s own website:

Works on permanent display from the Nolan Collection by eminent Australian artist,
Sidney Nolan. This significant collection was donated to the people of Australia in 1974 and, among many works, includes the Burke and Wills Expedition, Under the Pier, works from the Kelly series and Carcass works. CMAG manages the Nolan Collection on behalf of the Australian Government.

These works were originally on exhibition at a property, Lanyon, situated on the southern border of Canberra. The works looked great in the homestead and were indeed a very special treat to visit. The big trouble was that no-one went there and it was costing a fortune to keep the place up to museum standards. About ten years ago the move was on to bring these works into the main galleries and to establish a special presence for them.

I agree that the move had to happen and well done to those who had to work through the pleasures and pains involved in the decisions and the subsequent actions. I heard it was not such a pleasant experience.


I have been back to revisit the exhibition a couple of times recently. I have come to the conclusion that the management of the Canberra Museums and Gallery, having won the debate to undertake the move, have not had the time to deal with the reality that they have a treasure on their hands. I suggest that they have not yet been able to make best use of this fabulous resource.

The present exhibition looks to be temporary. When you visit the Nolan exhibition at the NGA, you enter a special place and the message is clear: Sidney Nolan is so important that we have created this room just to make sure you enjoy and get to know his work. There’s even a specially design large seat in the middle of the room so that you can relax and move slowly around to engage with the artworks.

The message at the Canberra Museum and Gallery is not so clear. The works carry the room. The lighting is wrong. The colour of the walls works against the paintings. Those stupid vinyl stools must go and be replaced with a couple of seating platforms so that the viewer can sit and move to face different directions.

The whole setting feels as though some temporary walls have been thrown up to make this temporary space for the works. It is bland at best. I suggest this exhibition desperately needs a re-think.


These works are very special and any member of the public coming in, not knowing about much Nolan, will not be visually engaged to spend any time in these partitioned off spaces.

Here’s what is on the other side of the wall – and this I should talk about another time.


I do recommend a visit to see these painting by Sidney Nolan. This is indeed a special collection and we are privileged to have such easy access to them.


Hopefully the management may enhance the exhibitions soon and think about making sure these are promoted far better (remembering that if that word of mouth is strong when things look good).

The exhibition should also be housed in such a way that locals would feel more welcomed to pop in every now and then.

I strongly recommend that it is worth the occasional return visit when visiting the other changing exhibitions (and more on the current exhibit very soon).

Dear CMAG, please provide some inviting seating within the Nolan Collection



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