When is a Library an Art Gallery? Hanging out with Art at the State Library of NSW

Paintings from the Collection Exhibition at State Library of NSW

I learnt something the other day.

Yes, I know the old saying that ‘it is a dull day when you don’t’. However, I am still a little boggled by all the questions this learning experience generated, and despite a lot of pondering, am still missing all the answers.

Maybe I am late to the party, but I thought that libraries were for books, papers, the written word?

Little did I know that the State Library of NSW has a vast range individual art works from the smallest portrait to the largest landscapes, over 100 000 architectural plans and 50 000 black and white art drawings.

The question is…why?

It was a blustery grey day in Sydney with horizontal rain whipping through the deserted Sunday streets. Going a little stir crazy, I couldn’t stay in my hotel a minute longer and needed to get out and go somewhere, anywhere close AND dry. The State Library of NSW is always an interesting option as they often have a range of small educational displays, a nice little bookshop and coffee. What is not to love?

At first I thought I would just pop in and see the Coming Out in the 70’s exhibition and hopefully by the time I had finished that history lesson, the sun would have decided to shine and I could get back outside and explore the streets of Sydney. Before I could get anywhere near that exhibition I was stopped in my tracks by Paintings from the Collection.

My first question: Where did all these paintings come from?

Followed closely by: Why are they in a library?

The Paintings from the Collection exhibition spreads over three large rooms with almost every inch of wall space covered by artwork of one genre or another. 300 works are hung for our enjoyment although many are located so high up the wall it is impossible to see the painting’s details from way down below. That seems a bit crazy to me, but maybe they are aiming for impact not enlightenment.

It was all quite overwhelming at first so I grabbed a copy of each of the four very slick catalogues to provide a little background on the art works. Even reading that was a bit challenging with small print in dim light (Lordy, I am getting old). Thankfully a gallery attendant noticed my feeble attempts to read and directed me to a large touchscreen display (how did I miss something so obvious?) where I could zoom in on any or all paintings, to read and learn to my heart’s content.

Tapping away merrily on the screen, even a non-artist like me could see that each of the exhibition rooms was themed. As you moved from room to room it almost felt like you were following the journey of Australia as the colony expanded and became more sophisticated.

I wonder if it also reflected society’s changing artistic tastes and styles? And what was considered ‘good art’ at the time?

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was struck to see how our First Australians were represented in the paintings. The consistent approach was to portray them with a sense of childlike naivety and items of curiosity. Yet, we know that that was definitely not the case.

Slowly it dawned on that there was a distinct lack of female subjects hanging on the walls.

·         Were they not painted as frequently?

·         Not interesting or relevant subject matter?

·         Were female-centred artworks not as saleable?

Then reviewing the catalogues, I noticed substantially fewer female artists. Also not as qualified, prominent, prolific or collectable?Or not good donation fodder or valued enough to contribute to the Library’s collection?

While the collection is extensive in size and variety, I couldn’t help but wonder, why?

·         Why does a library collect paintings?

·         Is it a historical thing? Libraries established in a developing society before art galleries are considered essential to a civilised society?

·         If that is the case, then why do libraries keep buying paintings even when a State-significant art gallery is in operation? This exhibition featured a recently-purchased landscape painted by famous Australian artist, Arthur Streeton, and that would not have been cheap.

·         Why is that extensive budget not channelled into literary works?

·         Are libraries considered more equitable and accessible? Less elitist? And that’s why people continue to donate their prize artworks to the facility?

All these questions and no answers leaping off the walls.

Obviously I still have so much to learn.

What are your theories? Why would a library have so much art?

The Basics

What: This is a free exhibition and one that will interest artists and non-artists alike. It’s not all stuffed shirts, wigs and medals with a few more quirky modern works too.

Where: 1 Shakespeare Place (just off Macquarie St), right in the centre of Sydney.

When: The library is open seven days a week. The exhibition closes on 31 October 2021

Why: To shake up some old perceptions about what a library can be and should be.

How: The Gallery is an easy stroll from anywhere in the CBD and the closest train station is Martin Place.

Who: Historians will enjoy the portrayal of colonial Australia, children can enjoy a customised children’s programme, and artists can play critic.

Related Posts: If you are ready for even more art and culture, then don’t miss the annual Archibald Prize exhibition, also at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Related Blogs: Interested in the weird and wonderful things the State Library delivers? Sign up to their blog for updates.

Read About It: If you are intrigued about First Nation history, then grab a copy of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. Yes, it is controversial, but it may open your eyes/mind to a different way of thinking about Australia pre-whiteman. Available from Book Depository.

Paintings from the Collection Exhibition at State Library of NSW

#worksofart #statelibrarynsw #arthurstreeton #literature #artexhibitions #artcollections #sydneyart

21 thoughts on “When is a Library an Art Gallery? Hanging out with Art at the State Library of NSW

  1. This is a huge collection of art for a library! But then again, from your description, the State library of NSW doesn’t sound like a small place …
    Your post reminded me of something in the town where I grew up … in earlier years (probably during the 80’s), households were allowed to rent paintings in a library – so, together with a few books, you would also leave the library with a painting or two and then, after 2 weeks, you return your books (and paintings) and get new ones.
    I don’t think it was very valuable paintings, but this was a way to show off art in your own home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a fabulous idea! And what an amazing way to make art accessible to the masses. Perhaps it was a version of an ‘art library’?? Lending more things than just ye olde books. Thanks for the inspiration.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating art and great observations!

    Perhaps it’s because libraries are quickly becoming museums themselves as everything becomes digital. Wandering the aisles of a library is almost like an interactive art exhibit these days. Or maybe it’s because public libraries are all about providing the public with easy access to learning. Art is a fabulous way too learn!

    I will definitely be pondering this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, my heart almost broke when you said that libraries were becoming museums! 🙂 I do love my books although I can see why e-books are so popular. To me you can’t beat the feel of a book in your hand and turning each page. As I said above “Lordy, I must be getting old”! I agree that libraries are reinventing themselves these days, and they have to to compete with all the other distractions in the World, but this library has been a repository of art or over 100 years. That is what has got me baffled….


  3. Well, if it’s any help, in France, libraries are often no longer called bibliothèques, but médiathèques, because as everywhere, they are the repository of so much more than books. But this collection of paintings and drawings seems unusual. Did it start I wonder from collections of drawings folios?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, now I get it… I wonder if our libraries will also consider ‘re-branding’ one day? Although I doubt our institutions would be so free-thinking as our French cousins. I obviously need to do some more digging to find out when the art collection began…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s certainly different. And so long as book-buying money isn’t squeezed ….

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Glad you found a good rainy day occupation. Maybe, as Katie says, to keep the library alive? 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. The little library in my home town sometimes refers to itself as the Town Square as it has become more of a meeting and socialising space than the old “shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, be quiet” approach of libraries when I was a kid.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved your perspectives and questions on the unique library exhibit! The “books” in this library I guess are read with one’s intuition and not with words. Very interesting place and I enjoyed the visit through your 👀 eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, maybe it is all about stimulating, educating, and entertaining with the visual rather than the written word? I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a bit of rivalry happening though with our Art Gallery of NSW….a fair dose of professional jealousy would be alive and kicking…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. wow a free art gallery! Great find. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think most of our galleries are free in Aus. It is just when they have special exhibitions that you have to pay, but even then it is usually more than worth the price of admission. We are lucky we live where we live.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Rather than just look, you’ve asked questions that get to the culture of the time (or times) for those paintings. Thoughtful insights into a surprising gallery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Maybe I shouldn’t have had my 21st Century hat on when I was viewing these works…but old habits are hard to break! 🙂


  8. I can’t answer your question, but it’s an interesting idea to put so much artwork in a library. You often hear about museums displaying only a tiny fraction of what they actually have, so maybe this is an attempt to get more out of storage and in front of faces??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a fabulous show on our tellie here last year featuring exhibits and special areas of the V&A in London. It was amazing to see what goes on behind the scenes and the level of skill of the restorers. Now that is passion AND dedication!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s one museum we haven’t been to during our several trips to London, but one we keep saying we should go to.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Now you have another reason to head back to Ol’ Blighty when the borders open! You will not be disappointed with this museum. It is a stunner!

          Liked by 1 person

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