A History of the Rockhampton Museum of Art Collection

Through a wide array of collection focuses, Rockhampton Museum of Art Collection has provided Rockhampton with a sense of identity, cultural currency and educational opportunities through visual art since its establishment in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The Collection is regarded as one of the finest in regional Australia. Rockhampton takes pride in its national significance as the only regional gallery collection in Queensland to hold a representative collection of mid-twentieth century Australian art, including the works of prominent Australian Modernist painters.

The Rockhampton Art Gallery was founded in 1967, with a dedicated exhibition space within 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 its sizeable acquisitions. Led by Rex Pilbeam, former mayor of the City of Rockhampton, and supported by regional businesses and local residents, the Gallery amassed tens of thousands of dollars in order to develop an art collection. The effort was prompted by a national government-funding scheme, the Australian Contemporary Art Acquisition Program, run by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, that would match dollar-for-dollar (later doubled) all monies raised locally (i).  In just one year, 1976–77, the Rockhampton community acquired Modern Australian artworks worth around $500,000 at the time.

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" (ii).

Acquisitions included 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’ (iii).

In the following decades, the Gallery has built upon this momentum and honoured Pilbeam’s original commitment primarily to Australian painting. In 2010, the Moya Gold bequest funded The Gold Award, an ongoing national painting prize that celebrates the best of Australian painting and enabled acquisitions from high profile artists including its winners Imants Tillers, Richard Bell, John Cattapan, Wendy Sharpe and Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori.

In addition to its long and sustained collecting history concerned with Australian painting, Rockhampton Museum of Art Collection has expanded into several media including works on paper, photography and ceramics that highlight the art and identity of First Nations and non-Indigenous Central Queensland. Internationally, there are also significant holdings of Japanese historical artworks, in the context of Rockhampton’s close ties with Japan; and a large acquisition of mid-twentieth century British prints.

With the opening of Rockhampton Museum of Art (RMOA) in 2022, with a new name and building, the RMOA Collection is now housed in state-of-the-art facilities along Rockhampton’s riverfront. The new building has a dedicated gallery space for an ongoing program of curated exhibitions based on the RMOA Collection, Gallery 2.1; an exhibition program that draws from the Collection and provides opportunities for further acquisitions; and the Margaret Olley Art Trust Collection Study Room, a space for viewing works from the collection in a research or educational context. Forever Now is a 2022 Rockhampton Museum of Art publication that showcases highlights from the RMOA Collection.

To this day, the Rockhampton Museum of Art Collection continues to develop in honour of Pilbeam’s legacy through the support of Rockhampton Museum of Art Philanthropy, Rockhampton Regional Council, and generous corporate sponsorship and benefactors.

(i) Minutes of the fourth meeting of donors to the Rockhampton Art Gallery acquisition fund, 28 September 1976.
(ii) Pilbeam, ‘Foreword’, The Rockhampton Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Rockhampton, c.1977.
(iii) Quoted in ‘City Art Collection ‘best in north’, Morning Bulletin, c.1977.