National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory © National Museum of Australia
Nick Mitzevich’s guide to Canberra
National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich reveals his insider tips to make the most of Australia’s cultural capital.
Interviewed by Dan F. Stapleton
Nick Mitzevich is considered one of Australia’s most accomplished gallery directors. He moved to Canberra in 2018 to take over as the director of the country’s premier art museum, the National Gallery of Australia. Since then, he says he has fallen in love with the “bush capital” and its unique blend of culture, politics and nature. Here, he reveals his favourite Canberra sweet spots.
Outdoor secret spot: The Sculpture Garden, National Gallery of Australia
“The Sculpture Garden that surrounds the National Gallery is magical – and many visitors don’t even realise it’s there. [Head around the back of the gallery building and the Sculpture Garden is on open public land beside the lake.] One of my favourite things in the garden is the Skyspace Within without by James Turrell, an amazing work that you walk into and are surrounded by. The Skyspace [a space designed with an opening in its ceiling to frame the sky] focuses your senses on the beauty of the natural world. Afterwards, I always feel that my senses are rebooted; it is a great relief and a place I often visit when I want to clear my head or have clarity.
“My other favourite work also surrounds you: it’s the Fujiko Nakaya fog sculpture Foggy wake. At 12pm and 2pm every day, the sculpture activates, and you are enveloped by fog in the garden. It’s a beautiful, ephemeral work. I live on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, and the Sculpture Garden is a lovely rest stop on my regular 10-kilometre (six-mile) ride or run.
“The Sculpture Garden is also exclusively planted with Australian natives. One of my other passions outside of art is gardening. I am working on my own native garden at home, so it is a constant source of inspiration.”
Lesser known suburb: Fyshwick
“This old industrial area on the outskirts of town [seven kilometres, or 4.5 miles, south-east of the city centre and accessible by Taxi or Uber] is now a burgeoning hub of great places to eat and interesting activities. The Dairy Road precinct, in particular, has become very lively. You can feel a kind of new energy starting. There’s an indoor snow arena, Vertikal, where my nephew goes to learn to ski; a climbing centre, BlocHaus, which is fabulous; and a chocolate shop called Jasper + Myrtle. As Nature Intended is a really beautiful café, and Capital Brewing Co has a taproom. The whole area seems to be bursting with new life.
“What I really love about this precinct is that it’s a work in progress and you can feel the energy and people’s passions in all different ways. In the coming months there will be further bespoke businesses opening. I’m particularly excited by a vintage furniture shop called The Modern Object, which I’m sure will draw me in as I slowly furnish my 1960s house.”
Eat street: Lonsdale Street
“There are so many great places to eat on Lonsdale Street, in Braddon, two kilometres (1.25 miles) north of the city centre. The place I take my loved ones and interstate visitors is Italian and Sons – I love the warm hospitality and regularly changing seasonal specials. If I’m after something a bit more casual but just as Italian, I’ll head to Pizza Gusto. The gelato shop Messina is on Lonsdale Street, as well. There’s also a really interesting bottle shop, Blackhearts & Sparrows. What I like about Lonsdale Street is that is defies Canberra’s sparseness. Canberra is a very spread-out city, but Lonsdale Street is different: it’s dense and bustling, full of people coming and going.”
Favourite bar: Bar Rochford
“Bar Rochford is a really cute little upstairs venue in the city. The atmosphere is relaxed, they always have great food, and I love the soundtrack – they play eclectic, eccentric vinyl records. The clientele of the bar isn’t definable: there are both young people and more mature guests. As someone who is about to enter his fifth decade, it makes me feel at home to be mingling with such a diverse group of Canberrans.”
Destination shopping experience: Designer Op Shop Emporium
“I love this collection of stalls in a big warehouse in Fyshwick. You can get everything from vintage fashion to modernist home decor. I always go there to find unique gifts for family and friends. I love the eccentric nature of all the things they have – you always find so many odd items. There’s something like 20 stallholders there, so you get a real diversity of objects. The stallholders are full of passion about vintage and have so much knowledge. They’re really friendly, too. It’s a nice place to spend a morning or afternoon, just rummaging through things.”
The Designer Op Shop Emporium is open daily except for Mondays and public holidays.
Only in Canberra: the national collections
“I’m biased, because I work for one, but for me, Canberra’s national collections – including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the National Museum of Australia – are a huge part of what makes this city so special. [And they’re all within a 15-minute drive of each other in the city centre.] You can see things here that you can’t see anywhere else in the world, from precious Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects to artworks by international titans. They’re extraordinary collections and, for me, they really define what the ‘bush capital’ [Australians’ nickname for the nation’s capital, as it was established in a regional district between Sydney and Melbourne] is all about, even more than the Federal Parliament.”
Favourite hotel: Ovolo Nishi
“Before I moved to Canberra, I used to stay at Ovolo Nishi, in the NewActon cultural precinct, close to the city, and loved it. It’s like an ‘anti-hotel’: it doesn’t look or feel like one. There’s no real lobby – instead, there’s a large but cosy food and drink venue, Monster Bar, where everyone mingles. The guestrooms are great, too: there’s a uniqueness to the interiors, with materials like wood and concrete, and each room feels like it’s customised. It’s a really interesting articulation of what a hotel in the 21st century can be like.”