As the new Head Curator of Australian Art, Wayne Tunnicliffe is ushering in a new era at the Art Gallery of NSW.


Wayne Tunnicliffe photographed by Kylie Coutts.

There are changes underfoot at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “A new director comes with a new vision, and we’re working towards and refining that vision,” says Wayne Tunnicliffe, the gallery’s Head Curator of Australian Art. Mr Tunnicliffe is referring to the June arrival of the gallery’s new director Michael Brand, but he could also be referring to himself, having been promoted to his current position a year prior. As with any promotion within a major institution, Mr Tunnicliffe’s attracted considerable attention, not least because of his age – he was 45 at the time – but because his specialist area is Australian art since 1960. That is, contemporary. He is, also worth noting, around twenty years younger than the two other heads of departments. What’s more is that, upon his appointment, Mr Tunnicliffe told the Sydney Morning Herald that he intended to refresh the collection. Was Mr Tunnicliffe, people wondered, arming to shift the gallery’s focus away from its largely historical collection? The question seemed particularly valid given that the Museum of Contemporary Art was, at the time, renovating and extending its building.

“Coming from a contemporary background I do have a different approach,” concedes Mr Tunnicliffe, “but I studied art history at university and really enjoy working with art from a long period of time.” While Mr Tunnicliffe has maintained his specialist area with his promotion, it is his aim, similar to that Mr Mitzevich’s in Adelaide, to tell a nuanced story with the gallery’s permanent collection. “We looked at every sculpture and painting in the collection when we re-hung the Australian galleries earlier this year,” he explains. “We have master works we want to display but also contemporary and Aboriginal art, too.”

In doing so, Mr Tunnicliffe believes his department can trace the continuities and diversity of Australian art across an extensive time period. His new role requires more administration, and courting corporate benefactors and private patrons is important in the acquisition of new work. Most recently, Mr Tunnicliffe’s department acquired The New Round Room by Brisbane-based painter Michael Zavros, the result of a partnership with Italian jewellery company Bulgari. In this instance, Bulgari provides the gallery with $50,000 to commission a new work by a mid-career Australian artist.

“The Bulgari Art Award is a very good example of a relationship with a company that has worked well for us,” he says, noting the obvious synergies between fashion design and visual art. For the gallery, which receives no government funding for acquisitions, such partnerships are vital to the ongoing health of its permanent collection, and in line with its history, which has resulted in one the country’s strongest holdings of 19th century art, Mr Tunnicliffe strives to purchase art directly from artists at the time of inception, which requires a critical eye.

According to Mr Tunnicliffe, the greatest challenge, however, is of borrowing work for temporary exhibitions. “There are many more museums in the world and many of them strive to have an active program of self-curated and –initiated shows, so it’s a much more complex game now,” he explains, having just returned from a trip throughout Europe. To Mr Tunnicliffe’s strength, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has a vast history, having curated many internationally travelled shows, and, he says, there is interest in Australia, “but beyond a knowledge of the gallery and our programs, it’s a combination of charm and arm-wrestling.”