Betty Churcher, who died on 30 March, aged 84, earned the epithet “Betty Blockbuster” when she was the feisty director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) from 1990 to 1997. But Churcher had been a dreamy child whose father told her not to complete her schooling because she would only get married and would have no need of an education.
She was an art student, an exhibiting artist, an art teacher, the director of the Art Gallery of West Australia and of the National Gallery of Australia, a documentary-maker, an author and the much-loved matriarch of Australian art.
Many Australians who probably never entered the National Gallery knew Churcher from her ABC television series of five-minute documentaries on art, titled Eye to Eye, Hidden Treasures and Take Five. In these series, Churcher used her warmth and charm to demonstrate that art was for everyone.
Betty Cameron was born in Brisbane. As a child, her favourite place was the creek that ran through her family’s garden, where she loved to sit and dream. Obsessed with art from high-school age, and blessed with a natural talent for drawing, she travelled to London on a scholarship, studying at the Royal College of Art. There, she won the Princess of Wales Scholarship for the best female student.
In London, she met her future husband, Roy Churcher, who was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. The couple married in 1955 and moved to Australia in 1957, staying there after Roy Churcher fell in love with the country.
After the birth of her first child, Betty became a high-school art teacher, leading to a long and distinguished teaching career at a number of institutions. A warm and direct communicator who earned the affection of her students, she had a great sense of humour, says the distinguished Australian painter William Robinson, who knew Churcher for many years and taught alongside her at the Central Technical College in Brisbane in the 1970s.
“She was good to play tricks on,” Robinson tells The Art Newspaper. “Sometimes, at examination time, I would do some horrible drawing and shove it in some of the papers that she had to examine. It made teaching much more enjoyable.” When he and Churcher taught hairdressing apprentices how to draw, “we had trouble convincing them that there weren’t two eyes in a profile”, he says.
“She was the most wonderful communicator as a teacher. Her students just loved her on a personal level,” Robinson says.
Director on a mission Churcher was determined and strong, and confronted many difficult situations. Once, during her tenure as the director (1987-90) of the Art Gallery of West Australia (AGWA), she confronted an angry crowd who wanted to stop the gallery from hanging an exhibition of French Impressionist paintings because they belonged to the colourful and controversial tycoon Alan Bond (who was jailed several years later for fraud). “I thought, ‘Well, there’s only one way to deal with that, and that is to confront them, to go out and talk to them’,” Churcher said in an interview years later.
She told the protesters that she took their point, but that the Bond show was the last opportunity for the people of Perth to see these important paintings. “When Robert Holmes à Court, the chairman of the AGWA board, launched the show, people were battering on the doors, and Robert… remarked about that being the first time he’d noticed people battering on the doors to get into the gallery,” Churcher recalled.
When she took over from James Mollison as the director of the NGA, she decided to make the institution a friendlier place for the public to visit. She also wanted to give her curators the opportunity to create their own exhibitions, rather than just accepting pre-packaged shows from overseas.
Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, organised by the National Gallery’s own David Jaffe, was the first of 12 “blockbusters”, earning Churcher her indelible nickname. Other blockbusters included Turner, organised by the late Michael Lloyd, and Surrealism: Revolution by Night.
“I was determined that Australians would get to see the very best,” Churcher said. “And that’s when we were getting these wonderful loans, these wonderful Caravaggios and Correggios and Titians and Tintorettos.”
Her first book, Understanding Art (1973), won a Times Literary Award. In later life, knowing that encroaching blindness would eventually prevent her from seeing works of art, Churcher travelled to some of Australia’s—and the world’s—leading galleries, making her own drawings of her favourite paintings. These drawings were published in her last books, Notebooks (2011) and Australian Notebooks (2014). She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1996.
Betty Churcher was living in rural Wamboin, near Canberra, when she died. Roy Churcher had died just a few months earlier. Betty’s four sons survive her. One of them, Peter, is a well-known artist.