The National Gallery of Victoria turns 150 this year. It’s celebrating the milestone with a series of events and special exhibitions, including a “pARTy” this weekend featuring late opening hours and live music.

Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria is Australia’s oldest public art gallery. The 150th anniversary has garnered much positive publicity as the gallery has embarked on a big round of new acquisitions, including of contemporary and recent indigenous art.

The story of the NGV may not necessary be “the story of Victoria”, as Premier Ted Ballieu reportedly said at the launch of the 150th celebrations earlier this year, but it is a good time to take stock of our cultural institutions and to assess their value in a time of rapid cultural and technological change.

As a young country, Australians sometimes like to think that our arts and culture suffers in comparison with the older and deeper cultural infrastructure found in Europe and the United States. In fact, the 19th century was the time when most rich countries created their iconic institutions, and Australia was at the forefront of an international movement.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870, for instance, while many of Britain’s cultural institutions came to prominence in the Victorian era. Museums and galleries were among the quintessential expressions of nation building: not only enabling the newly assertive middle classes to enjoy access to cultural treasures that had hitherto only been privy to the aristocracy, but also playing a key role in forming the content and consciousness of national identity.

Here in Australia, the colonies self-consciously sought to emulate the cultural institutions of Britain. By the time of federation, most of the states had a state library, art gallery and museum. This early fixation on state cultural institutions still has relevance today: the state libraries, art galleries and performing arts centres continue to enjoy the lion’s share of the budgets of the individual states’ cultural funding agencies.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the various state cultural institutions have become some of the best-loved public institutions in the country — arguably, in fact , some of the most popular and successful parts of the broader public service. Millions of Australians visit an art gallery every year — 1.5 million go to the NGV alone — and in 2009, the NGV was ranked by the Art Newspaper as the 20th most visited public art gallery in the world, coming in ahead of New York’s Guggenheim and London’s Tate Britain.

It’s interesting to speculate on the success of institutions that remain largely free and dedicated to the public, in contrast with many other privatised or corporatised aspects of the public service.

The state art galleries and libraries are in many ways models of what “public service” can be in the year 2011. They are some of the last places in the public service where service to the public remains the front-and-centre goal of the institution, and where strong leadership is assessed in terms of long-term goals, rather than the year-to-year vicissitudes of political fashion or budgetary exigency. The cultural institutions are also some of the last places in the public service where leaders can build multi-decade legacies without government interference.

In Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, the big state art galleries now have three long-term and charismatic directors in Tony EllwoodEdmund Capon and Gerard Vaughan. Capon, with his 30-year tenure and huge philanthropic and public funding base, has long cast a longer shadow than a succession of recent NSW arts ministers.

The public art galleries, libraries and museums need to be successful, because they remain expensive. While they represent only a tiny sliver of the funding required to build a new hospital or highway, in terms of arts funding, they enjoy the kind of unquestioned and significant public support that small organisations and ordinary artists can only dream about.

They are also being challenged by new technologies such as file sharing and the internet, which in some cases call their very raison d’etre into question. Public libraries in particular are currently grappling with some particularly thorny issues around the digitalisation of bibliographic material, for instance by Google, and the implications that will have for their current model of physical collections in big impressive buildings. Art galleries too are slowly moving into the online space, recognising that famous paintings on white walls are no longer the only or best way they can engage with the public.

The big institutions also have their blind spots. The galleries continue to own much more art than they could ever possibly show, which certainly assists their constant arguments for new space, but also locks artworks up in storage that might be better released to smaller galleries or the art market through de-accessioning. And the big galleries remain remarkably uninterested in supporting or profiling the work of emerging or mid-career artists, dealing almost by definition with the work of prominent or famous artists, many of whom are long dead.

However, despite the many criticisms of them — the art world being what it is, “institutional critique” is an art movement itself — Australians can be justifiably proud of the value that big cultural institutions like the NGV provide. In a time when politics is more partisan than ever, the fact that art galleries have avoided becoming controversial topic of political debate and continue to enjoy bipartisan support is an achievement in and of itself.