Arts correspondent Stephen Feneley writes:

The old masters are all being packed up and will be shipped out to various
corners of the country soon, meaning that the National Gallery of
Australia will no longer be permanent home to any significant western art made
before 1800.

In a move that one art world insider described as a “horror”, Crikey can
report that NGA director Ron Radford has finalised long-term loan agreements
with three state galleries for all 19 works in the Canberra gallery’s collection
of old masters.

Dispersing the old masters to the states was a key plank in Radford’s
vision statement, outlined only six months ago, but few people were expecting he
would move with such haste in executing the plan. Two major works have already
left Canberra – a 1623 Rubens self-portrait to the Art Gallery of NSW and Luca
Giordano’s Il ratto delle Sabine, circa 1670s, to the National Gallery of

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In a lengthy interview with Crikey, Radford wouldn’t say exactly where each
of the remaining 17 works is destined, except to confirm that the three-year
loan agreements are with the state galleries in NSW, Victoria and South
Australia. He wants to leave it to the borrowing galleries to make their own

Well, I hate to upstage Gerard Vaughan at the NGV, but it’s a dead
certainty that Melbourne is getting Tiepolo’s Allegoria nuziale to go
with the big Tiepolo it already has. Radford all but confirmed this when he said that thestate
galleries, when submitting their old masters wish lists, had to make a case that
the works they were seeking would complement their existing collections.

Shrugging off the criticism he’s copped for dispersing his entire
pre-19th century dead-white-male collection, Radford told Crikey: “They
are not the works that people come to Canberra to see. They come to see
our modernist works and our Australian works.”

While it’s true that the NGA’s collection of early Western art is small
compared to the state galleries, Radford’s initiative has
incensed some people who’ve had a long association with the gallery.

One well-known art world identity, who insisted on remaining nameless, told
Crikey: “It is the most f*cking stupid decision I have ever come across in all
my years in the arts.”

For an insight into the thinking of those who object to Radford’s vision,
check out this piece by Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald,
in which he writes: “If the main reason to banish the Old Masters from Canberra is that more
people will be able to see and appreciate them in the larger cities, then this
presents an equally compelling argument for closing the gallery and
redistributing the entire collection. If the argument is simply that a small
group of Old Masters does not fit in with the NGA’s collecting policies, this is
unlikely to touch the hearts of aggrieved Canberrans.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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