Past highlights

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Controversy: The power of art (curated by Dr Vivien Gaston) explored the social and cultural impact of art through examples that have provoked intense response and controversy. Beginning with key works that redefined the nature of art itself, including abstract art, Dada and art that provoked public outcry in the history of the Archibald Prize, the exhibition charted the involvement of art with salient social and political issues including social injustice, violence, refugees and the homeless. Controversies over lifestyles and critiques of bourgeois values were considered in Controversy, alongside the importance of the human body and the volatile re-interpretations that have provoked controversy on several levels, including sexuality, gender and the representation of children in recent art.

Shattered dreams, fresh beginnings, an expansive economy, rising fears and the emergence of a middle class were detailed in Sea of dreams: The lure of Port Phillip Bay 1830–1914. The exhibition traced the journeys of so many who were lured by the dream of a better life and told the intriguing story of Port Phillip Bay and the integral part it played in 19th and early 20th century survival, settlement, trade and commerce, defence and leisure. With more than 100 works displayed, many of Australia’s best known and loved artists were represented, including Charles Conder, Fred McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Louis Buvelot, along with rare drawings and prints by Emma Minnie Boyd, S. T. Gill, Georgiana McCrae, John Mather and Eugene von Guérard.

Jeffrey Smart: The question of portraiture was the first exhibition dedicated to the portraiture of renowned expatriate Australian artist Jeffrey Smart. The exhibition included early portraits done when he was making his way as an artist in Adelaide and a range of portraits of artists, writers and close friends such as painter Margaret Olley and companion Ermes de Zan.

The peninsula has long been considered a fertile breeding ground for innovative architecture in Australia. Out of the square: Beach architecture on the Mornington Peninsula was the first exhibition to survey the rich traditions of coastal architecture on the peninsula. Arranged geographically so that modern and contemporary projects rubbed shoulders, the exhibition considered the way in which architecture has developed under the rubric of form, patronage and place.

Arthur Streeton remains one of Australia's most celebrated artists and the outstanding exhibition,  Arthur Streeton: The passionate gardener (curated by Geoffrey Smith and Oliver Streeton), brought together approximately 40 major paintings examining for the first time the remarkable still life and garden paintings produced by Streeton during his career. From the 1920s, Streeton divided his time between his properties in Toorak and Olinda, where he lovingly nurtured and tendered his expanding gardens. His obsession with gardening led him to comment that he was often too busy planting bulbs to take up his brush to paint. The exhibition acknowledged and reinstated the significance of still life and garden subjects in terms of Streeton's intimate knowledge of the natural world, as well as celebrating his technical virtuosity as a painter.

Jeffrey Smart, Self portrait 1993, oil on canvas, The university of Queensland, Purchased 2003, Photograph: Carl Warner
Patricia Piccinini, Protein Lattice (Red Portrait) 1997, type C photograph, Courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries
McBride Charles Ryan, Blairgowrie Residence 2008, Photograph: John Gollings
Arthur Streeton, Oblivion 1895, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Charles Conder, Ricketts Point Beaumaris 1890, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1973