The making of an (art) exhibitionist

Living Well | Gabriella Coslovich | Photos: Matt Harvey | Posted on 28 July 2019

How Tony Ellwood curated Victoria’s most popular gallery.

Being brought to the National Gallery of Victoria as a child was a moment I never forgot. It was the deciding factor for me pursuing an art career. It told me that art was something that you could pursue in a serious way.  

My mother was a hobby painter. She took me and my twin brother, Deane, out of school for the day to see the Russian masterpieces exhibition. We travelled into the city by train from our home in Gippsland. The joke I always make is that it was the best day of my life and probably the worst day of his. 

My family moved around regional Victoria. My father was a soil conservationist and because of that we moved three or four times. I was very lucky that in my teenage years we lived in Bendigo. It was a particularly good spot to land at that critical age because Bendigo had such a respected gallery and it had a strong arts and culture focus which was just a blessing for me. 

National Gallery of Victoria director Tony Ellwood dressed in a suit against white background


I want every child in this state to get the opportunity I had
, that is, the unforgettable experience of walking into the NGV for the very first time. Just this morning I spent a lot of time with a foundation talking about all the new initiatives we would like their support for in relation to providing greater access for rural and remote children. 

I have a very big appetite for risk. I like to look at what’s happened internationally, in big cities like London, New York and Paris, because that’s where we benchmark ourselves these days and then I try to think, what hasn’t been done in the kind of environments that I study and respect, and how do I make Melbourne proud by having it constantly take the lead. 

I want to do big shows with an edge. I don’t want to just do shows you can see in other major world cities. That’s why we did Warhol with Weiwei (2018), for example. That’s why when we did Escher (2019) we said let’s bring in the world’s greatest designer, who happens to be Japanese (nendo), and see if he’ll agree to be involved. We’re doing a major show we’ve not announced, for the middle of next year, and it will be designed by someone that will be completely unexpected as well. So it’s that keeping people proud but guessing. 

You have to be comfortable with social media. You can’t survive in a 21st-century business and not have an understanding and a commitment to that form of engagement.


It’s ridiculous to ban selfies in galleries. Selfies are very much a part of 21st-century culture. If you try and ban them, people will sneak them in instead, so why not just allow people to behave as they behave in any other public space. 

I don’t see why we have to treat ourselves as being special or different. People have to respect other people in the gallery, of course, but I take a very liberal, contemporary approach to how I think people use space today. Our sector is inherently conservative and the fact that we have to even question this, it’s kind of a bit like, well, come on guys. 

You have to be comfortable with social media. You can’t survive in a 21st-century business and not have an understanding and a commitment to that form of engagement.

We don’t see sport as the opposition. We see sporting communities as great collaborators. We’ve started to understand how to work more with them in the last couple of years. The cross-over in audiences is huge, particularly in Melbourne, because both the arts and sport are deeply valued. 


I’m pretty one dimensional.
 I could reel out a whole lot of things that interest me that have to do with diversity and acceptance, equality, environment, you know, all those things. Hey, I live in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, so none of that is going to shock anybody! But honestly, when I wake up in the middle of the night I’m thinking about programming, I’m thinking about artists, I’m thinking about practicalities, I’m thinking about the business, and what the business needs to do or doesn’t do or could do better. 

I go to the gallery to relax and unwind. When people ask me what I do on the weekends, my honest answer is, I go to the gallery. I love watching the way people engage with art, that’s what drives me. 

My partner Tom [Mosby] and I have been together for 27 years. We met at the NGV. He’s CEO of the Koorie Heritage Trust. I’m very lucky that I’ve been supported all through my professional life by a partner who shares my excitement in the growth of ideas. 

Many of my exhibition ideas have evolved over the breakfast table with him, and he’s somebody who when I say 'I want to go to the gallery on weekends and look at the audience', he’s the first to say, ‘I’m there, I’ll come with you’.

The NGV’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang is on until 13 October. NGV Friday Nights bring bars, bands and dumplings to the viewing experience. ngv.vic.gov.au


Flashback 

Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria is Australia’s oldest and most visited public gallery. It holds the country’s most significant collection, comprising about 75,000 artworks from antiquity to the present, in all mediums, by Indigenous, Australian and international artists. The gallery’s riches owe much to the Felton Bequest, bequeathed by Alfred Felton, a wealthy Melbourne merchant who died in 1904. The bequest transformed the collection, funding the acquisition of works by artists including Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Rodin, Monet and Tiepolo. 

Originally located in Swanston Street, on the State Library site, in 1968 the NGV moved to its landmark bluestone building designed by Sir Roy Grounds on St Kilda Road, which now houses the international collection. A second site, NGV Australia, opened in 2002 at Federation Square, designed by Lab Architecture Studio. A third gallery – NGV Contemporary – will be built on the Carlton and United Breweries site, behind the NGV. 

Since becoming director in August 2012, Tony Ellwood’s priority has been the acquisition and exhibition of contemporary art. He has made his mark with home-grown blockbuster exhibitions such as 2013’s Melbourne Now, and the launch, in 2017, of the inaugural NGV Triennial. Under his leadership audiences have continued to grow, culminating in last financial year’s 3.3 million visitors.