Rockhampton Museum of Art, formerly Rockhampton Art Gallery, was founded in 1967 with a dedicated exhibition space at Rockhampton Town Hall. In 1979, Rockhampton Art Gallery moved to a purpose-built home at 62 Victoria Parade.
The impetus for this new building was motivated by the dramatic and sizeable acquisitions that occurred from 1976. Led by Rex Pilbeam, Mayor of the City of Rockhampton, and supported by regional businesses and local residents, the Gallery amassed tens of thousands of dollars to develop an art collection. This effort was motivated by a government-funded scheme introduced in 1973, the Australian Contemporary Art Acquisition Program run by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council. The scheme matched dollar for dollar (later doubled) all monies raised locally (i). In just one financial year, 1976–77, the Rockhampton community acquired Modern Australian art worth around $500,000 at the time.
This stunning collection includes paintings by Modern Australian artists Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Judy Cassab, Kenneth Macqueen, Lloyd Rees, Russell Drysdale, John Coburn, and many more. Upon his visit to Rockhampton in 1977, artist and former curator of the National Gallery of Australia James Gleeson remarked: ‘What had been happening in Rockhampton is the talk of Australia in the art world… There has been nothing like it in the country before’ (ii).
To coincide with the opening of the new Rockhampton Art Gallery in 1979, an exhibition of all the recent acquisitions was held. In its catalogue, Rex Pilbeam challenged the next generations:
"I solemnly charge the future citizens of Rockhampton to maintain and advance this Gallery in years to come. This is the least that we can expect of the citizens of tomorrow in return for the splendid contribution made by the citizens of today" (iii).
Over the ensuing years, the people of Rockhampton have indeed met this challenge, led by successive gallery directors and committed individuals. The first fulltime curator was Glen Webb (1970–1974), followed by directors: Don Taylor (1975–1989); Dianne Heenan (1990–1995); Lawrence Bendle (1995–2000); Lisa Loader (2001); Sue Smith (2001–2010); Tracy Cooper-Lavery (2011–2016); Bianca Acimovic (2016-2021); and Jonathan McBunie (2021-present). Rockhampton Museum of Art Philanthropy Board, formerly Rockhampton Art Gallery Trust, was formed in 1990 and over the years has been chaired by Fred Berry (1990–1994); Pamela Green (1995–1996); Charles Ware (1997–2007); Merilyn Luck OAM (2007–2016); and Dr Leonie Gray (2016-present).
The combination of a dynamic community fundraising body with ambitious leadership has seen the Gallery’s collection grow. Predominantly acquired through sponsorship and benefaction, the collection has a strong representation of Modern and contemporary Australian paintings, works on paper, ceramics and photographs, and art and artefacts of special relevance to Central Queensland.
Today, the Gallery honours the tradition and commitment to contemporary Australian painting established by Rex Pilbeam. In 2010 the Gallery Trust received a bequest of $600,000 from the Estate of philanthropist and educator Moya Gold, which, in 2012 became the nexus for national, biennial acquisitive painting prize The Gold Award. To this day the Museum manages the Bayton Award, a biennial prize for Central Queensland artists.
In February 2022, the renamed Rockhampton Museum of Art opened the doors of its spacious, multi-level building at 220 Quay Street to the public. Through region-specific and world-class exhibitions, developing the collection, and offering diverse educational opportunities, artist residencies and public programs, the Rockhampton Museum of Art is committed to enhancing access and enjoyment of visual art for Central Queensland.
(i) Minutes of the fourth meeting of donors to the Rockhampton Art Gallery acquisition fund, 28 September 1976.
(ii) Quoted in ‘City Art Collection ‘best in north’, Morning Bulletin, c.1977.
(iii) Pilbeam, ‘Foreword’, The Rockhampton Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Rockhampton, c.1977.