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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

20/20 launch speech

by Dr Helen Nugent AC, 18 October 2018

Minister Fifield, distinguished guests, one and all.

Thank you for joining us on this special night, marking the culmination of our celebratory year: 20 years since the Gallery’s establishment; 10 years since the opening of the building; and five years since we became a statutory authority.

We started 2018 announcing the creation of the visionary Darling Portrait Prize. This prize will amplify the legacy of our legendary founder Gordon Darling, while highlighting the laser focus of Mrs Marilyn Darling AC in establishing this wonderful institution 20 years ago. Mid-year, with the support of our Foundation Chairman, Mr Sid Myer AM, the first Andrew Sayers Memorial Lecturewas delivered, honouring our inaugural Director. In between, milestone exhibitions have paid tribute to the past, while looking to the future.

And tonight, we launch this year’s most ambitious project: our 20/20 exhibition. 20 newly commissioned portraits of 20 outstanding Australians by leading Australian artists. Despite our long and proud history of commissioning portraits—on average about two a year—delivering 20 commissions in a single year was an audacious dream that demanded impeccable delivery. But we did it. And here we are tonight.

In celebrating tonight 20 years with 20 portraits, we honour many people.

First, we honour our sitters.

You are performers and philanthropists, entrepreneurs and educators, captains of industry and captains of teams, scientists and soldiers, authors and axemen.

You come from the four corners of Australia and the world: from Broome to Brisbane; from Melbourne to Mosman; from Darwin to the Derwent; and from Pretoria to Perth.

You capture our hearts and minds through your writings, your performances, and your herculean sporting prowess. You inspire us with your generosity, your leadership and your bravery. You enrich our life through your commitment, your discoveries and your entrepreneurship.

You are trailblazers who make it easier for others to follow.

You are Indigenous and Islander Australians, migrants of many generations, as well as those who in your lifetime have made this country your own. In so doing, you have enhanced our understanding of what it means to be Australian.

We are inspired by your perseverance and determination in the face of adversity. We have shared your successes and we have shared your pain along the way.

You represent both our humanity and the nobleness of the human spirit.

You are the face of Australia, but we know that you are no ordinary Australians.

Second, we honour our artists.

You have a gift. A gift most rare. And that is to lay bare the soul that lies behind the face. The face of these gifted individuals who have given us so much. In your honouring them, we honour you.

In the recent months and weeks, we know we have put you under unreasonable pressure to produce an artwork that is a precious gift to our nation. We thank you for your insight and your craft. Your empathy and your focus. Your name is now forever entwined with those of your sitters and with that of the Portrait Gallery.

And equally, we know that in the process of producing these works, you also lay bare your soul. For that bounty we are also grateful. We acknowledge and thank you from the bottom of our heart.

Third, we honour our donors. This magnificent project, which has been fully funded, would not have been possible without your commitment and generosity. On behalf of all who visit this Gallery, I extend to you our sincere thanks.

I doubt if an unveiling of this magnitude, bringing together sitters, artists and donors has ever occurred before. It is therefore a rare and historic moment. So I hope you will forgive me if I take the time to acknowledge each portrait. As I do I would ask those here tonight to stand. I have grouped my metaphoric unveiling by field of endeavour.

From sport, we honour our flag-bearing Anna Meares OAM, our youngest female gold medal winning Olympic cyclist, who overcame horrendous injuries to become the first ever Australian to win medals at four consecutive Olympic Games. Narelle Autio, the artist, juxtaposes Anna’s innate beauty and tenderness with her toughness and resilience as symbolised by the harshness of the country where Anna grew up. King and Wood Malleson funded the portrait.

The invincible Mal Meninga AM, that rugby league tour de force, acquired Immortal status as a player and coach. Peter Hudson captures the man behind the icon, while paying homage to his and Mal’s Queensland roots. The portrait has been funded by Maliganis Edwards Johnson, and Portrait Gallery Board Director, Alan Dodge AM.

Renowned Wallaby forward, Tony Shaw, currently the President of Rugby Australia, captained Australia to fifteen test wins, and in 1980 helped Australia win the elusive Bledisloe Cup. Funded by Dr Pat Corrigan AM, the artist Sarah Rhodes captures the intensity of Tony, the 'hard and uncompromising' forward, on the veranda of his Queensland home.

Five time Olympian and Boomers captain, basketballer Andrew Gaze AM, has made the world his playing field, before returning to Australia to coach the Sydney Kings. Trent Birkett, the Portrait Gallery’s COO funded George Fetting’s emotive portrait which highlights Andrew’s penetrating gaze.

World wood chopping champion David Foster OAM has amassed over 360 world and national titles, including as Captain of the Australian axemen. Jacqui Stockdale has captured David’s power and presence underneath a tree that metaphorically bears witness to his family’s wood-chopping connections. The Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation have sponsored this portrait.

These sportsmen and women provide us with self-belief that Australia can punch above its international weight. Their herculean efforts inspire us and explain why sport plays such a role in our national psyche. We honour and celebrate these rare individuals who stand peerless in their field. We applaud all they have done to bring honour to our country, and we acknowledge the artists contribution in providing insight into the person that lies behind the face.

Turning to the arts. The arts, with all its rich diversity, help define what it means to be Australian. And artists are richly represented in the panoply of stars we acknowledge tonight.

The incomparable Jessica Mauboy, Darwin’s superstar, is carving a global music and screen career, winning critical international acclaim as a performer, and domestically as an Indigenous role model. David Rosetsky has created a memorable portrait that captures Jessica’s character, confidence and energy. Sony Music Entertainment have generously sponsored the commission.

The virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer, Richard Tognetti AO, has led the Australian Chamber Orchestra to international fame, innovating across genres to win new enraptured audiences. In a triangle of friendship and insight, Peter Weiss AO has supported Louise Hearman’s memorable portrait conveying Richard’s brilliant frenetic energy.

Li Cunxin, having graced the world’s ballet stages as a principal dancer, is now Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet, demonstrating how a true leader can effect change. But it is in print and on the screen that, as Mao’s Last Dancer, Li has achieved international recognition, with his heart-rending story of discipline, love, separation and overcoming adversity. Also originally from China, Jun Chen has captured Li’s life-time commitment to dance in his memorable portrait that Mr Tim Fairfax AC has kindly supported.

And let’s not forget our incomparable writers. First, the ever thoughtful Peter Goldsworthy AM, a doctor by day and a writer by night, whose texts—poetry, short stories, novels and words—not only grip readers late into the night, but have been adapted for stage, screen and operas. With an insightful rear view, Deidre But-Huseim captures Peter’s creative thinking process and his inner private world. The commission has been supported by Jillian Broadbent AO and myself.

Similarly, Louis Nowra’s intense, insightful plays—dozens of them, along with novels and non-fiction, have crossed from stage into television, bringing real insight into what it means to be Australian. Imants Tillers depicts the fearlessness of Louis’ life and work in a commission funded by Tim Bednall, John Kaldor AO and Naomi Milgrom AO, along with Jillian Broadbent AO.

And finally, the venerable, multi-talented Jacki Weaver AO, having spent a life-time in the Australian limelight as a singer and stage and screen actress, has now achieved international fame and multiple academy nominations. John Tsiavis, with funds provided by Marilyn Darling AC, captures Jacki’s power and force, along with the complexity and depth of her acting.

These are the arts superstars who display their artistic talents across multiple fields of artistic endeavour. They define the many faces of Australia and make Australia proud. They have immortalised others, and now we honour them.

We also honour two extraordinarily talented educationalists, whose impact extends far beyond the walls of academe.

Professor Fred Hilmer AO has helped transform Australian business in a rapidly globalising world. With his incisive mind, his clear thinking, his extensive writings, and his commitment to action, he has redefined competition policy in this country. As a reform strategist, educational and business leader, and company director, he has profoundly influenced micro-economic business competitiveness. Evert Ploeg has captured the essence of Fred’s commitment to simplicity and directness in his thinking. With great pleasure, I have supported the commissioning of this portrait.

Professor Margaret Seares AO is no ordinary academic. She might initially have carved her career as a keyboard specialist and musicologist, eventually becoming Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Western Australia. But it is through her commitment, insight, diplomacy, courage and advocacy that she has redefined Australian arts policy and funding. The arts in Australia are in her debt. Cherry Hood, with support from the Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation, has deliberately presented a likeness of Margaret, rather than a psychological profile.

While education is critical to defining Australia’s future, Fred and Margaret have extended the reach of the gown, to truly make a difference in other fields of Australian endeavour.

Women making an impact in science and technology are a rare commodity. But tonight we honour two giants in that field. They inspire all, but particularly young women.

Professor Michelle Simmons is one of the world’s top scientists. As a pioneer in atomic electronics and quantum computing, she is heading the computing era space race from her role at the University of New South Wales. In recognition, she is the 2018 Australian of the Year. Selina Ou’s photograph of Michelle provides an insight into her strength and resilience, while examining her unlimited trailblazing potential.

Our other global superstar is Tan Le. A refugee from Vietnam, she has achieved international recognition for her entrepreneurial work in neurotechnology, and as a passionate community leader and advocate for women in technology. John Tsiavis pays tribute in his portrait to Tan’s refugee past, while acknowledging her role as an entrepreneur and business executive.

Both Michelle and Tan’s portraits are supported by the Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation.

Members of our armed forces keep us safe by putting their own lives at risk. Tonight we acknowledge the contribution of Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG, a Victoria Cross recipient and the most decorated Afghanistan war serviceman. In honouring Ben, we recognise and thank all our servicemen and women who protect our freedom. Julian Kingma’s emotive image of Ben shows both his physical prowess, and his vulnerability. It has been supported by the Calvert-Jones Foundation.

Business, both small and large, underpin the vitality of our economy. The success of business is critical to our national success.

Nicholas Paspaley Jnr AC epitomises the power of enterprise and family. The son of a Greek migrant, he leveraged his father’s endeavours to create a pearl-based company, internationally respected for quality and sustainable farming practices. His is an inspirational story of the power of human endeavour and the opportunities Australia affords its citizens. Andrew Bonneau captures Nicholas’s sea-based pearling connection and his commitment to quality. It was commissioned with support from Mr Ross Adler AC.

Two other multi-talented Australians came here as migrants and have disproportionately impacted Australian business. Both are women.

Gail Kelly, mother of four, including triplets, is an inspiring story of a migrant, who starting life as a teacher, rising to the highest echelons of Australian business. As CEO of both St George and Westpac, Gail brought about the St George-Westpac merger. Her human touch and advocacy for women has made her an inspiration. Paul Newton captures Gail’s self-assuredness, humanity, but also her femininity and elegance. Westpac Group and Optus have sponsored the commissioning of the portrait.

Catherine Livingstone AO is another living legend. Originally from Kenya, Catherine has been at the forefront of Australian innovation, initially as CEO of Cochlear and then as Chairman of the CSIRO. While her corporate career includes her being Chairman of Telstra and more recently, CBA, she is also Chancellor of UTS, and the former President of the Australian Museum. Catherine is also a role model for women. Mathew Lynn shows Catherine’s unconscious personal style of creative and intuitive flow. Mr Tim Fairfax AC has supported the commission.

I come now to our final distinguished Australian. A man without peer, who has made his mark across agriculture, business, media, the arts, and particularly philanthropy. Our own Tim Fairfax AC personifies all that is good and great in our society. His humanity and generosity knows no bounds. His humility is legendary. And his quiet and gentle influence is profound. The National Portrait Gallery is fortunate to count him not just as a former Chairman, but also as a Visionary Benefactor. Tim we know how difficult it was to get you to accept this honour, but we are gratified that you accepted. You are truly an uncommon Australian. Russell Shakespeare captures not just Tim’s love of photography, but his honesty, sincerity and his connection to home and family. The Calvert-Jones Foundation has provided the funds for this work.

So that is the twenty. Twenty rare individuals who have given this country so much across so many fields, but whose influence is not limited to those areas of endeavour.

Before I conclude, I wish to acknowledge two other groups.

I honour the Directors of the Board and of the Foundation. You dared to dream. You dared to dream that an ambitious project could be conceived and executed in time for this event. And you provided the commitment to ensure it was delivered. Thank you colleagues for your steadfast determination and courage in seeing this project through. It is a glorious night.

And finally, I salute management. You have overcome boundless hurdles in delivering this project. Moments of initial fleeting self-doubt at the herculean nature of the task were quickly replaced with self-belief that a small, dedicated, high quality team can deliver a project of huge size and complexity in a flawless way, with grace and good humour. In particular, I acknowledge our outgoing Director, Mr Angus Trumble, and our Senior Curator, Dr Christopher Chapman, who along with other members of our executive team, including our Registrar Mr Bruce Howlett, Ms Gillian Raymond, Ms Jenny Kich, the Design Team and the Media Team have made this possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a night most rare. A joy to behold. I thank you for joining us to celebrate yet another milestone in the history of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia. Here is to our twentieth, to our 20/20. And to twenty more glorious years. I ask you to stand and join me in toasting the Gallery’s 20th year, the opening of the 20/20 exhibition, as well as the next twenty wonderful years.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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