Remembering Betty Churcher

2 April 2015

Late in life, when her physical body was failing her, she never lost her passion for art and for discovering something new or something previously overlooked.

Emeritus Professor in art history Sasha Grishin reflects on his memories of artist, art critic and administrator Betty Churcher, who died on Tuesday 31 March, aged 84.

Ms Churcher, a former director of the National Gallery of Australia, worked on campus in the 1990s as an Adjunct Professor with the then Centre for Cross Cultural Research.

In 1996, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University.
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Although I first met Betty Churcher in the 1970s, I only got to know her well in 1990, when she was appointed as the Director of the Australian National Gallery, an institution whose name she was to change two years later to the National Gallery of Australia.

She was a warm and 'inclusive' person, who was eager to share her excitement about art and I quickly became involved in various curatorial activities at the gallery.

At the ANU she launched two of my books, The Art of John Brack (OUP 1990) and Andrew Sibley: Art on the Fringe of Being (CH 1993).

Meeting for a coffee or tea and for meals at home became a regular fixture.

Before her, and subsequently, all directors of the National Gallery on retirement, left Canberra shaking the dust from their feet. Betty retired at the age of 66, and until her death at the age of 84, she remained in Canberra and was a frenetically busy as an advocate for art, on television, the radio and in the press.

Living in Wamboin, on the outskirts of Canberra, for Betty the ANU became a home away from home, an office from which she could mount excursions to the National Gallery, the National Library and the Australian War Memorial for her exceptionally popular art programs on the ABC as well as her lectures, books and journalism.

Late in life, when her physical body was failing her, she never lost her passion for art and for discovering something new or something previously overlooked.

One of the last times we met at the ANU, after a bite of lunch and as we were parting, she said to me "Do you think we have time to pop over and see Sid's Riverbend? I would hate to die without having said goodbye to it."

It is so sad to think that we now have to say goodbye to Betty.

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