History of the Australian print collection

The first Australian prints were acquired by the Government in the 1940s to decorate official residences. These were mostly historical, along with a few contemporary prints. With the appointment of James Mollison as Interim Director of the Australian National Gallery in 1977, the acquisition of contemporary prints commenced and comprehensive groups of prints by key artists were purchased. Acquisitions in this period included the prints of Sydney Long, George Baldessin, Arthur Boyd, and screenprints from the alternative print workshop, the Earthworks Poster Collective.

In 1978 the appointment of Daniel Thomas as Senior Curator of Australian Art saw a widening of the collection and an art historical approach to acquisitions. In this same year an important group of modernist linocuts of the 1930s and 1940s, and the first New Zealand prints entered the collection. The position of Curator of Australian Prints was advertised in 1980 but not filled. Martin Terry, Curator of Australian Drawings, supervised the collection until a curator was appointed the following year.

When Roger Butler was appointed Curator of Australian Prints, Posters and Illustrated Books in 1981 his brief was to systematically form a comprehensive collection of Australian works - as such a collection was not being formed by any Australian art museum or private collector.

Australian art museums, including the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria, had concentrated their efforts on acquisition of old master prints - and now hold substantial and important collections.

The collection policy of the Gallery differs from both of these institutions - their emphasis is history, the Gallery's is art. But, of course, there are many overlaps. The Gallery has built up a substantial colonial print collection representing some of the greatest artists of the period, including John Lewin, Joseph Lycett, Augustus Earle, George French Angus, and Ludwig Becker through their printed works.

The collecting emphasis for the Gallery has been on artists prints post-1880. In 1982 a number of key artists were identified whose work would be collected in depth: among them Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and John Mather from the nineteenth century; Margaret Preston, Ethel Spowers, Noel Counihan and Jessie Traill from the 1920s to 1940s; John Brack, Fred Williams from the 1950s to early 1960s; and alternative print workshops from the 1970s and 1980s. Other artists' works were collected to represent the best of their production.

Since 1989 acquisitions of contemporary prints (post-1960) have been purchased from the Gordon Darling Australasian Print Fund. These acquisitions have been wide ranging and include the work of established artists such as Bea Maddock and John Olsen, younger artists such as Bronwyn Piggott and Ken Orchard, and those who were new to printmaking, such as Mike Parr. Selective acquisitions from alternative print workshops have continued.

In collaboration with the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, (initially Wally Caruana, presently Brenda Croft), a unique collection of prints by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists has also been established, now numbering over 1500 works from 1968 to the present. This collection includes Koori artists such as Karen Casey who works in Melbourne, as well as community-based artists such as Banduk Marika from Yirrkala and Bede Tungutalum from Nguiu, Bathurst Island.

In response to Australia's multicultural make-up, a concerted effort has been made to acquire prints by first and second generation Australians - Henry Saulkauskas born in Lithuania was a post-war second world war settler while Nicholas Nedelkopoulos is Australian born of Greek parents. Art produced by migrants from Asia is the latest in Australia’s cultural mix.

Artists, their relatives and friends, dealers and collectors have recognised the National Gallery's commitment to building a comprehensive collection of Australian prints and significant gifts have resulted. Donations have included definitive groups of prints by Lionel Lindsay, Bea Maddock, Barbara Hanrahan, Tony Coleing, Alun Leach-Jones, Mary Macqueen and William Robinson to name just a few.

The breadth and depth of the collection is now widely appreciated due to exhibitions (both within the Gallery and those travelling), publications and lectures to both the general public and art specialists.