Shared Beginnings

On Yandilup land, Gooloogoolup waters

The Gallery is situated in the Yandilup area on Whadjuk Noongar lands. Gooloogoolup was originally part of the Perth lake system consisting of twelve lakes, of which only three remain – Lake Monger, Lake Gwelup and Hyde Park. The current man-made cultural centre wetland links into this old waterway system.

This information is referenced from the introductions by Noel and Alison Nannup, and Merindah Bairnsfather-Scott featured in the publication AGWA 1979: A Brutalist Gallery in Perth.

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Early history

The Gallery came into being in 1895, acquiring two acquisitions in its first year. We then joined with the Museum to become part of the Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery in 1897. In 1899, on the current site of the WA Museum, the Jubilee Building opened housing the State Library, Art Gallery and Museum. The Foundation stone was laid in 1901 on Beaufort Street by the Duke of York, and the Gallery’s first purpose-built space opened in 1908 with Hillson Beasley’s top-lit Picture Gallery.

In 1959, the Gallery separated from the Museum following the establishment of the Gallery Act 1959.

The Collection begins

The first acquisitions were a contemporary work by George Pitt Morison and a copy of a seventeenth-century painting by Rembrandt. Acquiring copies of well-known works was not an uncommon practice at the time, as it broadened access to artworks which nineteenth-century thinking deemed instructive or enlightening for the public at large. George Pitt Morison’s Springtime, painted in the year before the Gallery’s establishment, was a distinctly contemporary acquisition in 1895, initiating an ongoing commitment to acquiring works by contemporary artists.

A new home

The new Art Gallery of Western Australia building was opened on 2 October 1979 by then Premier Charles Court. The inaugural exhibitions were the Baron von Thyssen Collection, a Bridget Riley exhibition and a new series of Collection displays. 

Designed by Polish-born Charles Sierakowski, the building was a dramatic example of late Brutalist architecture, displaying robust textures and expansive concrete forms symbolising modernity and progress – a reflection of the times.

It is a unique modernist building, designed around 120-degree angles and modular wall lengths of 7, 14 and 21 metres. Its central features are a cast concrete spiral staircase and vistas between and across the nine gallery spaces that use the 120-degree angles to stimulate peripheral vision. The building was inspired by the pavilions and courtyards of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and informed by AGWA Director Frank Norton’s travels.

The main gallery building façade underwent a significant restoration project in 2012 with all building faces reclad in like-for-like concrete blocks.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Opening Brochure 1979 (detail).
The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Opening Brochure 1979 (detail).
W.A. Art Gallery, Roe Street [detail] 1977. Public Works Department of WA, Architectural Division.
W.A. Art Gallery, Roe Street [detail] 1977. Public Works Department of WA, Architectural Division.

Centenary galleries 

Constructed as the Perth Police Courts in 1905, the Centenary Galleries building was restored and opened in 1995 by Premier of the time, the Hon. Richard Court, in AGWA’s centenary year. The galleries were initially used to house historical art, featuring displays of many of the State Art Collection’s 19th and 20th-century paintings and decorative arts. The gallery spaces are now used for special exhibition displays such as Pulse Perspectives.

The original designer of this building was the Public Works Department Chief Architect John Grainger, assisted by Hillson Beasley, who brought the project to completion in 1905. Built during the Gold Rush, the building reflects a late nineteenth-century interpretation of the French Regency style, incorporating a mansard roof (which has four sloping sides, each of which becomes steeper halfway down), unusual in Perth architecture of the period.

The Gallery recognises the colonial history of the former Courthouse and jail and its incarceration of many people, including Aboriginal men, women and children. In 2019, the Gallery consulted with Elders and senior members of the Whadjuk Noongar arts community and for the first time exhibited Aboriginal works in the space.