In 1945 Dr Roland Pope, an ophthalmic surgeon from Sydney made the promise of the bequest of his art collection of some 137 Australian paintings to Newcastle, conditional upon the construction of a gallery to house them. A bold promise fuelled by a passionate belief that a steel city could have the best gallery in the country. Pope’s collection was held in storage for 12 years awaiting a gallery. In 1957 Newcastle City Art Gallery, as it was then known, opened on the second floor of the War Memorial Cultural Centre adjacent to the gallery’s current home.
Newcastle Art Gallery, Australia’s first purpose built regional gallery, was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Friday 11 March 1977. Applauded as a model for medium sized galleries with its innovative floor plan and hanging system, even in its infancy critics lamented the lack of storage space. The building is also an important example of early 1970s architecture with its geometric forms and brutalist aesthetic.
Today the Gallery has in its collection over 5000 works of art and can display only a small percentage of its renowned collection. In 2004 Newcastle City Council and the community endorsed a Master Plan for the Gallery’s redevelopment. The plans for the Gallery’s redevelopment will ensure that the Gallery continues in the spirit of innovation that saw it begin in 1977.
Newcastle is the second oldest and sixth largest city in Australia. First established as a penal settlement, the earliest works in the Gallery’s collection are by convict artists. Joseph Lycett’s paintings of early Newcastle, or Coal River as it was known in the early nineteenth century, give central prominence to Nobbys headland, the quintessential feature of Newcastle harbour. Today, Newcastle is the busiest harbour on the eastern seaboard. Lycett’s early views of Newcastle also document the Indigenous inhabitants of the region, namely the Awabakal and Worimi people whose lands spread north of the Hunter River and south to encompass Lake Macquarie.
Newcastle has a proud working class history and is still the largest coal exporting port in the world. The city has also produced its share of artists. William Dobell, John Olsen, William Rose, Tom Gleghorn, Ross Morrow, John Molvig were all born and bred in the city, while artists including John Passmore, Royston Harpur, Stanislaus Rapotec, Matthew Perceval, Shay Docking and Margaret Olley have been drawn to the city, to its architecture and industrial vistas.