The story of Rockhampton Art Gallery’s enviable art collection is a remarkable tale of imagination, philanthropy, hard work and cultural pride. The earliest art donation to the City of Rockhampton was in 1931, a bequest from the estate of a local resident Edward Cureton Tomkins, dated late 1780s. This painting was once thought to be by Sir Joshua Reynolds, but was later re-attributed to the English portrait painter, Lemuel Francis Abbott. Several years after this initial donation Rockhampton Art Gallery was founded in 1967, with a dedicated exhibition space at Rockhampton Town Hall. In 1979 Rockhampton Art Gallery was provided with a purpose built home at 62 Victoria Parade. The impetus for this new building was motivated by the dramatic and sizeable acquisitions that occurred from 1976.
Led by Rex Pilbeam, Mayor of the City of Rockhampton, and supported by regional businesses and local residents, the Gallery amassed tens of thousands of dollars in order to develop an art collection. This effort was motivated by a government-funding scheme that was introduced in 1973. The Australian Contemporary Art Acquisition Program, run by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, would match dollar for dollar (later doubled) all monies raised locally.i In just one financial year, 1976–77, the Rockhampton community acquired modern Australian art worth around $500 000—a collection that today is valued at $14 million.
This stunning collection includes paintings by modern Australian artists Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Judy Cassab, Kenneth Macqueen, Lloyd Rees, Russell Drysdale, John Coburn, and many more. James Gleeson, artist and then curator at the Australian National Gallery, visited in 1977 and was very impressed by what the town had achieved. In his view, ‘What had been happening in Rockhampton is the talk of Australia in the art world … There has been nothing like it in the country before’.ii
To coincide with the opening of the new Rockhampton Art Gallery in 1979, now sited along the Fitzroy River, an exhibition of all the recent acquisitions was held. In its catalogue, Rex Pilbeam challenged the next generations:
I solemnly charge the future citizens of Rockhampton to maintain and advance this Gallery in years to come. This is the least that we can expect of the citizens of tomorrow in return for the splendid contribution made by the citizens of today.iii
Over the ensuing years, the people of Rockhampton have indeed met this challenge, led by successive Gallery Directors and committed individuals. The first full-time Gallery curator was Glen Webb (1970–1974), followed by Directors: Don Taylor (1975–1989); Dianne Heenan (1990–1995); Lawrence Bendle (1995–2000); Lisa Loader (2001); Sue Smith (2001–2010); Tracy Cooper-Lavery (2011–2016); and Bianca Acimovic (2016-2021). Rockhampton Art Gallery Trust was formed in 1990 and over the years chaired by: Fred Berry (1990–1994); Pamela Green (1995–1996); Charles Ware (1997–2007); Merilyn Luck OAM (2007–2016); and Dr Leonie Gray (2016-present).
The combination of a dynamic community fundraising body with ambitious leadership has seen the Gallery’s collection grow. Predominantly acquired through sponsorship and benefaction, the collection has a strong representation of modern and contemporary Australian paintings, prints, ceramics and photographs, and art and artefacts of central Queensland. The Gallery also has a significant collection of late 20th century British prints, a generous gift from Dr Douglas Kagi that includes prints by Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson. There is a collection of Japanese objects, including a samurai suit, screens and kimonos.
Today, the Gallery honours the tradition and commitment to contemporary Australian painting established by Rex Pilbeam. In 2010 the Gallery Trust received a bequest of $600,000 from the Estate of philanthropist and educator Moya Gold. In 2012, the Gold Award was introduced as a national, biennial acquisitive painting prize worth $50,000. This Award has substantially increases the Gallery’s ability to acquire works of exceptional aesthetic and art historical merit, including work by Imants Tillers and Sally Gabori. In a show of public commitment to the Gallery, in 2012 local residents generously donated funds to purchase a painting by Ben Quilty, an act that was repeated in 2014 to acquire sapling by Del Kathryn Barton.
The Gallery is committed to supporting and nurturing the creative development of visual arts in central Queensland. The Gallery manages the Bayton Award, a biennial, non-acquisitive prize worth $5,000 for central Queensland residents. Through region-specific exhibitions, developing the collection and offering diverse education and public programs, the Gallery is committed to enhancing access and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art for central Queenslanders.
(i) Minutes of the fourth meeting of donors to the Rockhampton Art Gallery acquisition fund, 28 September 1976.
(ii) Quoted in ‘City Art Collection ‘best in north’, Morning Bulletin, c.1977.
(iii) Pilbeam, ‘Foreword’, The Rockhampton Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Rockhampton, c.1977.