The history of the National Gallery began with a simple dream: that people should have a national gallery to call their own. It would be a place to showcase art; to preserve, study and teach about this vast nation’s cultural heritage; and to acquire magnificent works from around the world. It would expose us to great art from all periods and in all its manifestations: paintings, photographs, sculptures and more. Thus from the first dreams of the initiators, and with the high cultural awareness of all people, the National Gallery developed into one of the most eminent cultural and artistic institutions.
The first paintings in the National Gallery collection came from bankers and collectors. The enthusiastic response of the visiting crowds demonstrated an active interest for art as well the desire for the establishment of a permanent public collection. Following the success of the first exhibition a special committee was established to promote the establishment of a National Gallery. The next ten years saw active campaigning for the funding of the new Gallery. An annual purchase grant was allocated for the acquisition of pictures and the institution would thrive over the years through purchase, bequests and donations.
Initially, the Gallery had no formal collection policy, and new pictures were acquired according to the personal tastes of the Trustees, but they were being criticized for neglecting to purchase works. In the first 20 years of its life, the administration of the Gallery was disorganized. The staff was very small. The great burden of duties fell on the shoulders of the Keeper, whilst strategic decisions were made by the Board of Trustees which did not meet regularly. Following the reform of Gallery administration, the new Director travelled to purchase works for the Gallery. The Director ensured that the Gallery’s collection of painting expanded and widened in scope to become one of the best in the world.
Despite the pressure caused by the increasing number of exhibitions, and the ever greater overstocking of the depots, the gallery tirelessly continued with its established program and the Gallery was extended. The gallery enriched its possibilities for performing the basic tasks established: to safeguard the heritage of the people, and to transmit it to the public at the highest possible professional level.
Loan exhibitions have been an important aspect of the programs at the National Gallery of Art since it first opened to the public. These gifts could not be completed, however, until the federal government agreed to pay taxes to the state. This was accomplished through an act of Congress.
The individuals whose generous contributions first established the National Gallery as an art museum of the highest rank are recognized as Founding Benefactors. Each donor presented a private collection that could have constituted a museum in itself. Instead, their combined gifts set a precedent for giving to the nation that continues to this day.
Some six years later the Gallery became the focus of international attention. From all parts of the homeland and from abroad there arrived congratulatory telegrams and greetings-cards to mark the great achievement. The Gallery was beginning to enjoy a great reputation among public. Likewise, at this time, we must not overlook the exceptional selfless dedication of the first directors of the National Gallery.
Today, the National Gallery is one of the world’s most respected art institutions, revered for its scholarship, applauded for its ability to engage audiences of all ages and all levels of artistic knowledge, and renowned for its exceptional collection of works of art.
But the Gallery’s evolution was not without bumps: from fires to politics to media controversies. Currently the Gallery is preparing for a major refurbishment. Due to ongoing refurbishment works in the Gallery, some key works in the collection may be unavailable at short notice.
With a commitment to free admission, a central and accessible site, and extended opening hours the Gallery has ensured that its collection can be enjoyed by the widest public possible, and not become the exclusive preserve of the privileged.