‘Masterpieces from the National Program for Excellence in the Arts: The Legacy of Brandis’, by Toby Fehily


During a packed press conference at the Rupert Murdoch Memorial Building this morning, the National BHP Billiton Gallery of Victoria officially opened a major exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of its Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, Masterpieces from the National Program for Excellence in the Arts: The Legacy of Brandis.

Featuring more than 550 works drawn from the government’s world-class, 21st-century art collection, Masterpieces tells the story of how in 2015 Sir George Henry Brandis AK CH QC established a national program to rescue the arts from the grips of the Australia Council, a short-lived government body that enabled artists to work with a dangerous lack of ministerial oversight.

From the foyer, over the screams of the few remaining Fairfax reporters being dragged away by armed guards, we could hear arias by Puccini, Rossini and other composers.

Established in 2004, the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series is a relic from a time when there were four distinct seasons each year. The so-called ‘winter season’ was the coldest of all the seasons – though still relatively warm compared to the year-round arctic conditions we enjoy in Australia as a result of the entirely normal and natural “climate readjustments” of the early twenty-second century.

Following the announcement, members of the press were screened for their state-mandated News Corp journalism licences and escorted through the gallery for an exclusive preview of the exhibition. The show has been carefully curated in order to make an impact before you even enter the gallery space. From the foyer, over the screams of the few remaining Fairfax reporters being dragged away by armed guards, we could hear arias by Puccini, Rossini and other composers no doubt familiar to all from the compulsory secondary-school subject of Opera.

Greeting visitors at the entrance is Brandis’s 3x5-metre, oil-on-canvas work Me (2024), arguably the strongest of his seven Archibald Prize–winning self-portraits. Bordering on abstraction, the painting shows Brandis surrounded by rectangular, bound collections of paper, which, according to the plaque, were known as “books”. Though to some the work may appear to be no more than blobs of paint slapped haphazardly on a canvas, it is imbued with a sense of urgency and confidence characteristic of the political leader’s personality.

A bold visionary with the courage and will to look beyond expert opinion, public consensus and common sense, Brandis was derided by some during his 28-year reign as Minister for the Arts and later as Grand Commissioner of the Arts. A few critics claimed that his control over arts funding would see politics triumph at the expense of innovation, experimentation and quality. Masterpieces emphatically proves this was not the case. A prime example of the subversive and sophisticated art created under Brandis is Greg D Boreanis’s masterly video work Poo & A (2019), which takes aim at Q&A, the news and current affairs program that aired on the ABC until the national broadcaster lost its government tender to PalmerMedia. Consisting of an episode of the program wherein all the dialogue has been dubbed over with fart noises, Boreanis’s video is a perfect example of the way the NPEA provided a platform for nuanced commentary on contemporary society. Another highlight is Brad Regis Onge’s finely wrought marble bust Bill the Butthead (2016), which depicts former Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten with a butt instead of a head.

A beastly wind turbine looms over the unbridled majesty of an open-pit coal mine

With times being so good now—the rebel forces have been for the most part quelled and oxygen prices are at a historic low—it’s easy to forget how bleak life was in the 2010s. One room of the exhibition dedicated to early 21st-century Australian history suggests a country under siege. In Ben Igor Darges’s painting The Battle of Nauru (2023), a horde of marauding asylum seekers waving AK-47s from their battleships is beaten back by members of paramilitary death squad Australian Border Force, which back then in its infancy was just an agency for customs and border protection. Elsewhere, the danger is of a more insidious sort. A beastly wind turbine looms over the unbridled majesty of an open-pit coal mine in Debora Reggins’s meticulously detailed fresco Gone with the Wind (2019), while in the foreground a group of miners sit for a break with their packed lunches, blissfully unaware that the nearby turbine has almost definitely given them all cancer.

While most of the artists’ work is spread throughout the space, an entire room is dedicated to the works of Grand Duchess Frances Abbott, daughter of King Tony the Wise and arguably the finest artist to emerge during the Brandian era. As an apocryphal story has it, she was so accomplished that at the age of twenty-two she was awarded an exclusive $60,000 scholarship at the Whitehouse Institute of Design following just a single meeting with the managing director of the school. The fact that she managed to rise to such prominence despite being a woman and therefore shrill and hysterical is further testament to her immense talent.

As you reach the end of the gallery, there are works grouped by themes including Beautiful Nature, which brings together depictions of beaches (“a pebbly or sandy shore, especially by the sea between high- and low-water marks”), rainforests (“a luxuriant, dense forest rich in biodiversity, found typically in tropical areas with consistently heavy rainfall”) and coal. Most striking among them is Regina B Gordes’s The Great Barrier Reef (2021), a panoramic watercolour of the offshore oil field best known as the site of the detention centre where the Masterchef Australia Detention Centre Kitchen Challenge is shot.

Showcasing a veritable feast of diverse political voices, ranging from quite conservative through to very conservative, Masterpieces is an opportunity not to be missed – a perfect family outing, so long as the parents aren’t gay or anything.

Toby Fehily is the editor of Art Guide Australia and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Smith Journal, VICE, Junkee, Spook Magazine and other publications. He is the recipient of a 2015 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship.