Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia © Megan Crabb
6 of the best modern art galleries in Australia
Are you a fan of contemporary art? Here are six Australian galleries you really need to visit.
By Simon Webster
Australia’s top galleries are remarkable places for discovering modern and contemporary art. You’ll find masterpieces from Australia and overseas, major international exhibitions, the controversial and the quirky, and a broad range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. From the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra to Hobart’s radical Museum of Old and New Art, here are six destinations that offer amazing art experiences.
Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art
Where: South Bank, Brisbane
The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) is internationally recognised for its collection of contemporary art from Australia, Asia and the Pacific. You can experience this, alongside a dynamic program of exhibitions, in two buildings on Brisbane’s buzzing South Bank. This riverside neighbourhood is home to leading cultural institutions, parks, markets and even a city beach, just across a pedestrian bridge from the city centre.
QAGOMA is also home to the renowned Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, which, every three years showcases some of the most exciting contemporary art from this part of the world.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Where: Circular Quay, Sydney
Right on Sydney Harbour, with views across to the Sydney Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (better known as the MCA) has been challenging, inspiring, and sometimes confounding visitors with contemporary art since 1991.
The MCA celebrates living artists through exhibitions, special events and its permanent collection of 4,000 works by Australian artists. But it also has a sense of history: its buildings are on the site where Australia’s first European settlers landed on the First Fleet in 1788. The MCA also has a strong commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary art. This includes the permanent work Warrang, by Brook Andrew, which comprises a sculptural LED arrow pointing to lines of poetry, and greets people as they enter the museum.
General admission is free, so treat yourself to lunch with stunning views over the harbour at the rooftop café while you’re there.
Museum of Old and New Art
It’s weird and wonderful, and an essential visit when visiting Hobart. A 25-minute ferry ride (with seats that look like sheep no less) from the city’s historic waterfront, the bold, privately-owned Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has been dividing opinions – but largely earning rave reviews – since the day it opened in 2011.
There are no labels on the artworks in MONA’s subterranean world, though you can listen to commentary on a location-aware mobile guide. Either way, you’re guaranteed to find plenty to love in founder David Walsh’s eclectic (to say the least) private collection of art and antiquities.
National Gallery of Victoria
Where: in the centre of Melbourne
Australia’s oldest art museum (dating back to 1861), the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) welcomes some 2.5 million visitors a year and has more than 75,000 objects in its collection, including a magnificent selection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
The gallery is known for hosting blockbuster world premiere exhibitions, such as the Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang in 2019. It also offers a program of events covering everything from contemporary art and design to fashion, sound and performance.
Look out for works by the likes of Ai Weiwei, David Shrigley, Guerrilla Girls, Louise Lawler and Nick Cave as you explore the NGV’s two stunning buildings, NGV International and NGV Australia.
National Gallery of Australia
Where: in the centre of Australia's capital city, Canberra
Found in Australia’s capital city of Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) hosts major exhibitions and is home to a permanent collection of approximately 160,000 works, including a remarkable array of modern and contemporary international art, from the surrealism of René Magritte to the pop art of Andy Warhol. You’ll find works by Jackson Pollock (including his masterpiece Blue poles), Henri Matisse and James Turrell, whose Within Without is a walk-through “Skyspace” in the NGA gardens.
While you’re outdoors, don’t miss the sculpture garden between the NGA building and Lake Burley Griffin. But be sure to leave plenty of time to head back indoors and explore the gallery’s vast collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, which includes works by Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira.
Art Gallery of South Australia
Where: in the heart of Adelaide
The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) has been on its current site, an iconic building in the centre of Adelaide, since 1900. In the intervening years, the gallery has expanded in line with its increasingly impressive collection, which is 45,000 pieces strong and spans 2,000 years. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is a highlight, along with the 20th-century modernist art collection, which focuses on works by female artists.
Exploring the gallery, you’ll find works by Australian greats, including Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, and contemporary Asian art, including Absence embodied, a wool, bronze and plaster installation by Chiharu Shiota.
Look out for major events including the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, the Tarnanthi festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, and the Ramsay Art Prize for contemporary Australian artists under 40.