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Churcher, Elizabeth Ann

    Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

    Full Name: Churcher, Elizabeth Ann

    Other Names:

    • Elizabeth Ann Dewar Cameron
    • Blockbuster Betty

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 31 January 1931

    Date Died: 30 March 2015

    Place Born: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    Place Died: Wamboin, New South Wales, Australia

    Home Country/ies: Australia

    Subject Area(s): Abstract Expressionist, Australian, and Modern (style or period)

    Career(s): directors (administrators) and museum directors

    Institution(s): National Gallery of Australia and School of Art and Design at the Philip Institute of Technology (Australian National University)


    Director of the National Gallery of Australia, 1990-1997. Elizabeth Ann Dewar Cameron was born to William Dewar Cameron (1893-1962), a Scotish immigrant and Vida Margaret Hutton (Cameron) (1894-1985). From 1938 to 1946, her maternal great-grandmother funded her to attend the private girl’s school, Somerville House. Churcher first became interested in art in 1939 when she went to the Queensland Art Gallery. She won several child-art contests through The Sunday Mail Child Art Contest. In her senior year at Somerville, her father fought to have her education end, believing “education spoiled a girl.” Her headmistress reduced Churcher’s fees with the stipulation she promise to spend a year or two after graduating teaching art classes there.  Pursuing a (studio) art career, she began exhibiting with the Younger Artists Group (YAS) of the Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) in 1948. Churcher became the chair of YAS the same year, which ultimately aided in her winning a travel scholarship to London. In London, she studied at the South West Essex Technical School with Stuart Ray and later, from 1953 to 1956, at the Royal College of Art. Churcher won the Princess of Wales Scholarship for the best female portfolio. During this time, Churcher met fellow artist Roy Churcher who was studying at Slade School of Fine Art and was soon married. She continued to win awards for her art.  In 1957, Churcher and her husband returned to Brisbane where they set up a studio and an art class. Yet, by the end of 1959, Churcher claimed she lost interest in painting. In 1971, Churcher began teaching at Kelvin Grove Teachers’ Training College where she remained for seven years. Her art writing began in 1972 as an art critic for the Australian. In 1973, she wrote a school textbook called Understanding Art that later won the London Times award in the category of information books. In 1975, Churcher returned to London with her family of five and completed an MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University. Her thesis was on how Alfred Barr’s exhibition policy at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s influenced the budding Abstract Expressionist movement. Her research brought her in contact with many contemporary artists.

    When she returned to Melbourne in 1979, Churcher taught at the School of Art and Design at the Philip Institute of Technology. By 1982, she had become the Dean. In 1983, Churcher served as the Chair of the Visual Arts Board. The following year, she gained the position of the Deputy Chairman of the Art Council. She also published her work Molvig: The Lost Antipodean during this year. In 1987, Churcher was invited by Robert Holmes to apply for the position of Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australian in Canberra, making her the first female director of a state art gallery. In 1989, Churcher received the Australian Institute of Management Award for Women.

    Upon the resignation of the Australian National Gallery founding director James Mollison in 1990, Churcher succeeded him again, as the first female director. In her early years as director, the galley struggled financially. Thanks to her efforts guiding exhibitions, profits soon rose. Previously, the gallery had only accepted exhibitions from other institutions, a practice Churcher would work to change. She started work raising funds for building for major temporary exhibitions, like the ones throughout her career as director. Two exhibitions that helped the gallery grow substantially were David Jaffe’s Rubens and The Italian Renaissance (1992) and Michael Lloyd’s Surrealism: Revolution by Night (1993). Her efforts to bring people from all across Australia to the National Gallery soon gave her the nickname “Blockbuster Betty.” She launched innovative exhibitions such as the 1994 titled Don’t Leave me this Way focusing on the HIV epidemic. Additionally, during her time as director, she changed the time of the museum from the Australian National Gallery to the National Gallery of Australia.

    After her retirement in 1997, Churcher served as the adjunct professor for the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research National University for the Australian National University. She also worked as the presenter of art television series such as ABC’s “Take Five,”  “Proud Possessors,” “The Art of War,” and “Focus on John Olsen,” among others. In the last few years of her life, Churcher published Treasures of Canberra, and in 2011, she published her journeys to numerous art galleries as Notebooks. Melanoma and macular degeneration did not prevent a final, poignant personal trip to London and Madrid art museums one last time. Australian Notebooks, about the six major state galleries in Australia and a final notebook, The Forgotten Notebook. In 2015, a year after her husband died, Churcher died of lung cancer at age of 84.

    From an early age, Churcher was aware of the limitations in being a woman. In an interview, she felt that “just about everything [she] wanted to do, [she] couldn’t do because [she] was a girl.”

    Selected Bibliography

    • Understanding Art. Oxford: Rigby Publishing, 1973;
    • Molvig: The Lost Antipodean. Bristol: Allen Lane Penguin Books, 1984;
    • The Art of War. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2005;
    • Notebooks. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2011;
    • Treasures of Canberra. Ultimo: Halstead Press, 2013;
    • Australian Notebook. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2014;
    • The Forgotten Notebook. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2015.


    Contributors: Kerry Rork


    Kerry Rork. "Churcher, Elizabeth Ann." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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