Australia opens new gallery amid economic gloom

Wed Dec 3, 2008 5:44am EST
 
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By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - It cost nearly $20 million more than planned, and opens amid fear of recession, but Australians are hailing a new portrait gallery as a celebration of national identity.

In a low, lakefront building pierced by sunlight in the nation's capital Canberra, colonial-era paintings hang nearby photographs of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin and multimedia moving images of Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett.

"It doesn't really matter if it's a photograph or a painting, or a sculpture or a new media piece, so long as you look at it and you get a real sense there is somebody in there," Andrew Sayers, director of the A$88 million ($56 million) National Portrait Gallery told state radio.

The gallery, 10 years in conception, has room for around 500 artworks. Its predecessor -- 130 works which have been on display in a temporary home nearby at the former parliament building -- has been an unexpected hit with Australians and tourists.

The collection began in earnest only in 1999 with a portrait of Australia's discoverer James Cook, painted by John Webber in 1782, three years after the British explorer's death.

Natural light was a design focus for the gallery, which critics have called the most beautiful to date in a scratch-built city of politics, criticized for favoring brutalist, concrete monuments at odds with a stunning mountain horizon to the west.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Visitors can peer into the eyes of Layne Beachley, seven times world women's surfing champion, or gauge the drive of Australian cycling professionals Cadel Evans and Stuart O'Grady.   Continued...

 
<p>The Australian National Portrait Gallery building in Caberra is seen in this November 26, 2008 file photo. The gallery costs nearly $20 million more than planned, and opens amid fear of recession, but Australians are hailing the new portrait gallery as a celebration of national identity. REUTERS/National Portrait Gallery/Handout/Files</p>