Story and photos Luis Feliu
Governor-General Quentin Bryce officially opened the Margaret Olley Art Centre (MOAC) in Murwillumbah on Saturday, describing it as ‘the most famous rooms in Australian art’.
More than 800 invited guests and VIPs attended the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah for the gala ceremony to open the $4 million MOAC, an extension of the gallery, which celebrates the life, legacy and works of one of Australia’s most loved artists.
It was the last official engagement outside Canberra for the Governor-General before her tenure in the role comes to an end next week.
The MOAC includes re-creations of three of the rooms in the late artist’s famous Sydney home, including the Hat Factory and the Yellow Room where she spent many hours painting.
Before unveiling the official plaque, the Governor-General told guests the MOAC was a unique project which entrenched the Tweed Regional Gallery as the home of ‘the most famous rooms in Australian art’.
She also said regional galleries played an important role in Australia and the Tweed Regional Gallery was ‘one of the best’.
Federal arts minister George Brandis told the audience it was fitting that the final function the Governor-General was officiating at was the MOAC opening, because Olley had been a friend of hers for more than 50 years.
Mr Brandis said he was invited to lunch with the artist at her home some years ago and the MOAC re-creation of the Olley home was ‘perfect’ in every detail.
He said curators had done such a good job with the re-creation, it felt as though Margaret Olley might appear at any time ‘in a corner with a cigarette in hand’.
The arts minister, who described Olley as ‘Australia’s favourite great aunt’, said he and prime minister Tony Abbott both had chosen Olley paintings for their parliamentary offices.
Mr Brandis said it was also fitting that the span of Olley’s life was defined by two Archibald Prizes. First was William Dobell’s 1948 portrait of the artist, then ‘an astonishing 63 years later we see her again’ in Ben Quilty’s ‘bold brushstrokes’ portrait which now hangs in the Tweed gallery.
‘Those who knew her best say her heart truly belonged in this beautiful region of the northern rivers which so inspired her early life and where she returned to so often’
‘Those who knew her best say her heart truly belonged in this beautiful region of the northern rivers which so inspired her early life and where she returned to so often, so it’s entirely fitting that the Margaret Olley Art Centre is here,’ Mr Brandis said.
Margaret Olley trustee Philip Bacon described the new centre as ‘absolutely stunning’ and ‘a triumph’ which re-created her studio ‘down to the tiniest detail’.
‘The only sad note is that the star of the show, that artistic rock star Margaret Olley, isn’t here to see it herself,’ Mr Bacon said.
‘Yet she is, really. Her presence is everywhere, as you will see when you go inside.’
Mr Bacon proposed locating the yet-to-be-built Olley Memorial Garden at MOAC next to an artist-in-residence studio named in honor of one of Margaret Olley’s great friends, Lady Nancy Fairfax.
Tweed mayor Barry Longland said the project had been highly anticipated by northern rivers residents and the Australian art world since work on the gallery began in June 2013.
In 2011, the Margaret Olley Art Trust announced that the late Australian artist had bequeathed $1 million to establish a re-creation of her studio and elements of her home and wanted it built in the Tweed, where she spent time as a child.
‘Together with contributions of $1 million from the federal government, $620,000 from the Tweed Gallery Foundation, $200,000 from the NSW government and $100,000 from Friends of the Tweed Regional Art Gallery, Tweed Shire Council contributed $1.2 million to see the project through to today’s opening,’ Cr Longland said.
He said it was an investment to create a national and international attraction which would provide social and economic benefit for Tweed residents for many years.
A council spokesperson said around 21,000 items were relocated from Olley’s Paddington home to create a precise reproduction at the MOAC, which will also house a significant number of her paintings.
Former deputy prime minister Doug Anthony, whose gift of the land the gallery sits on made it all possible, told Echonetdaily the opening on Sunday was the most ‘exhilarating feeling’ of his life, because ‘so many people have been involved’ in helping to achieve a gallery ‘with no equal anywhere else in Australia’.
Margaret Olley’s nieces Sally Wilkinson, from Brunswick Heads, and Helen Rose Olley, from Toowoomba, agreed the recreation of the studio was ‘perfect’.
Ms Wilkinson said the Paddington studio became her own ‘second home’ in the last 10 years of the artist’s life after Margaret invited her to live there.
‘I’m happy to see it re-created for everyone else to experience the artistic side of her life which is more than just the paintings,’ she said.
‘I got a lot closer to her as a result of living there, it was a unique home, it’s odd to be here without her.’
Richmond MP Justine Elliot said ‘the power of a great idea is unstoppable’ as she recalled moves to get the MOAC up and running.
Mrs Elliot said she embraced the plan immediately and lobbied hard for the federal government to match the Olley Trust’s $1 million donation.
Friends of the Tweed River Art Gallery and MOAC president Lyn Stewart said the ‘small girl rowing across the Tweed River 80 years ago to go to school’, had ‘today come home to the Tweed’.
Gallery director Susi Muddiman gave a candid account of how she first heard, over a lunch with Philip Bacon, that the Olley Trust wanted to give the gallery $1 million to establish the centre.
Ms Muddiman said Olley’s paintings would prove an inspiration for generations of painters to come.
Other VIPs at Saturday’s opening included state Lismore MP, Thomas George and several Tweed shire councillors.
Students in the choir at Murwillumbah Public School, where Olley first went to school, performed several songs including the national anthem.
Tweed Regional Gallery and the Margaret Olley Art Centre will be open to the public today, Monday 17 March, from 10am to 5pm but closed on Tuesday 18 March.
It will re-open on Wednesday 19 March, before resuming its opening hours each Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.