AGWA mourns the passing of Betty Churcher (1931-2015)

Betty Churcher AGWA Concourse

The Art Gallery of Western Australia expresses its condolences to the family of Betty Churcher who passed away on 31 March, 2015.

Churcher was the Director of AGWA from 1987 to 1990, and her contribution to the Gallery and the Western Australian and national arts community remains significant and inspiring to us all today.

Churcher’s vision as Director was expansive and inclusive.  Driving her work was a deep understanding of the importance of public galleries and collections whose riches nurture and inspire the creative aspirations of their communities.  This was not just a professional concern for her, it was inherently personal and profound.  With her eyesight failing, she travelled to Perth to see her favourite works of art one last time.  But she didn’t just look, she drew them too, thus embedding her cherished artworks within her body, taking them inside her very being.  The project was published in 2011 under the title Notebooks and in it, Churcher revealed herself to be someone who lived for and through art.

It was this powerful, personal commitment to art that shaped her work at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.  And so, it was only natural that under her impassioned leadership, the Gallery enjoyed a very dynamic and popular program of exhibitions and acquisitions.  Indeed, works and exhibitions brought in during her time remain vital to the heritage of this State, and represent cornerstones of our institution.  Exhibitions such as Old Masters New Visions from the Phillips Collection, The Art of Frida Kahlo, Romance and Irony in Recent American art and her support of curator Robert Bell’s first Perth International Crafts Triennial, are fondly recalled by so many as key moments of our visual arts history.

Such high profile exhibitions, which saw Churcher forging connections with the greater world, were always located against a diverse and changing program of work by local artists.  Featured artists during this time included Sandra Black, Mac Betts, John Tarry, Mary Moore, Robert Juniper, Marcus Beilby and Leon Pericles.  These shows were contextualised by the staging of significant surveys of work by Miriam Stannage, Brian McKay and Brian Blanchflower, that forged new understanding of the visions that shaped our culture.

These still-remembered exhibitions were supported by the acquisition of over two and a half thousand works of art.  Among the most important works acquired at the time, now icons of the Collection, are Charles Blackman’s Triptych Alice 1957 and John DeAndrea Allegory: After Courbet 1988.  Another vital thread of Collection development under Churcher’s leadership was the acquisition focus on Indigenous works by a huge range of artists such as Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Trevor Nickolls.  In addition, major acquisitions of non-Indigenous Australian artists such as Arthur Streeton, A.B. Webb, Juan Davila, Robert Hunter, Robert MacPherson, Elizabeth Gower, Ian Burn, Jenny Watson, Bill Henson, Peter Booth and so many more still provide a base for our current acquisition program.

With an eye on the development of future acquisitions, it was during Churcher’s tenure that the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Foundation was established.  It is this organisation that continues to support the majority of the Gallery’s acquisitions. 

Thanks to her enthusiasm, passion for public galleries and long term vision, Betty Churcher is fondly remembered by all who have worked, and continue to work at the Gallery.  Her achievements are with us all.

She leaves behind her four sons and grandchildren, and a legacy in this Gallery and the art world nationwide.

Above: Betty Churcher, Director and Seva Frangos, Assistant Director – Curatorial.  Image from 1987-88 Art Gallery of WA Annual Report.


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