Betty Churcher

April 4, 2015
Betty Churcher, at her home in Wamboin in 2012
Betty Churcher, at her home in Wamboin in 2012

Betty Churcher was one of those rare figures who could bring the world of art alive for the general public. In this, she was a woman out-of-step with an era that has seen the visual arts develop its own impenetrable jargon and snobberies. This was anathema to Churcher, a born educator whose love of her subject was apparent in every public appearance. After she retired from the directorship of the National Gallery of Australia in 1997, she devoted herself to writing and broadcasting, reaching a huge audience through her television programs for the ABC.

Churcher had great personal charm and charisma. On TV she came across as someone viewers felt they knew as a friend. Whenever her name was mentioned at a large gathering there would be a chorus of voices ready to sing her praises. It was uncanny. The only other name that stirred such a response was that of Margaret Olley.

As an educator and a pioneering gallery director, Churcher opened doors for women in Australia’s public institutions. She ran the NGA at a time of budgetary constraints, and was obliged to raise revenue. She achieved this with a series of high profile exhibitions that brought the term “blockbuster” into common parlance. Looking back, one can only admire the quality of many of these shows, brought about in large part by Churcher’s effective collaboration with a highly determined curator, the late Michael Lloyd.

The key to Churcher’s popularity was her genuine love of art. When she stood in front of the camera talking about paintings, her enthusiasm was palpable. Her lifelong habit of making small sketches in museums became the basis of two publications, in 2011 and 2014. She did not draw as an aspiring artist, but as a student endeavouring to understand the secret mechanisms that made a masterpiece. It signalled her commitment to seeing art as a living entity, not a relic of ages past.

It was the same story in her relationships with people. Even when she disagreed with your opinion, Churcher would remain calm and genial. She would have made a wonderful diplomat, or as once suggested, a Governor General. She showed enormous patience with Roy, her waggish husband, who died last year. Neither was it a small feat to maintain a career and be a mother for four sons. In conversation she was always ready to look on the bright side, even when you felt that her real views may have been far more critical.

Betty was Australia’s uncrowned Queen of Arts. She will be missed and mourned, but her achievements and her personal qualities will be remembered with affection by those who knew her, and by the thousands of admirers who knew her only through her works.