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.
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.
Sport stars feature heavily given the importance of sporting success to Australians. But asked to nominate national favorite figures to coincide with the opening, the public nominated actress and singer Olivia Newton John of "Grease" fame.
The gallery is one of a handful of dedicated portrait spaces in the world and sits beside Australia's National Gallery and the High Court. It was built with a mission "to increase the understanding of the Australian people, their identity, history, creativity and culture through portraiture."
Unlike the surrounding buildings, the sloping gallery was kept as low as possible, mostly on a single level with five interconnected bays open to the light.
"You can see right the way through," Sayers told The Australian newspaper. The gallery, he said, would illustrate the importance to Australians of their vast continent, with images from the outdoors featuring at a temporary exhibit set up to celebrate the opening.
"I don't think people will come away thinking the National Portrait Gallery is saying anything about our national identity except that we all have a relationship with the landscape," Sayers said.
"Is that a nationalist idea? Not really, but I believe it's true about Australia," he said.
The National Portrait Gallery opens on December 4.
Editing by Miral Fahmy