At first glance, the broad avenues and utilitarian civic buildings of Australia’s capital can appear calculated, even sparse. But open a door to any of its extraordinary cultural institutions – the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of Australia and many others – and the contrast is striking. You’re instantly in a rich, riotous world of art and artefacts that are governed only by the laws of beauty, meaning, whimsy and emotion.

The National Portrait Gallery prides itself on making the art of portraiture approachable. Silent walls of stuffy men in suits? Hardly. Actress Deborah Mailman smiles knowingly from one wall; a young, half-submerged Dawn Fraser peers intently at her coach from another. Then there’s the winner of the 2020 National Photographic Portrait Prize, a powerful depiction of Sydney seafood chef Josh Niland embracing an enormous mahi-mahi.

And the beauty begins before you even step inside. With Floriade cancelled this year, the gallery’s gardeners took possession of hundreds of bulbs that would have been displayed at the famous flower festival. They’re now due to burst into life in the garden beds at the gallery’s entrance at the first hint of spring.

Thousand Armed Western Sculpture, National Gallery of Australia

Image credit: Xu Zhen’s Thousand Armed Western Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia.

The arresting Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia was one of the few art spaces that could still be accessed during the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, with joggers, walkers and families taking advantage of its winding bush pathways and sun-speckled, tactile displays (children love pressing their hands against the cool stainless steel of Bert Flugelman’s angular work, Cones). Inside, most of the exhibits are back on display, including the thunderingly bold work of Chinese artist Xu Zhen, Urs Fischer’s melting wax man, Francesco, and the crowd favourite, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. In March 2021, the blockbuster Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition opens, featuring Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – only the fourth time the painting has left its London home.

If you’re looking for a quiet corner that takes in the interior and exterior art at once, make a detour to the tiny Water Gallery, a restful space that’s often overlooked by visitors. Here you’ll find a changing display of calming ceramics, soft seating and enormous windows that look out to the Sculpture Garden.

Ovolo Nishi, Canberra

Image: Ovolo Nishi hotel.

But Canberra’s culture isn’t just reserved for the big institutions – art is around most corners if you look. The Ovolo Nishi hotel is full of artwork, including its famous soaring wooden staircase sculpture and magnetic Mosaic Room. The Free Serbian Orthodox Church St George, just a few minutes walk from Parliament House, looks unassuming on the outside but inside has a vast array of religious artwork on a scale rarely seen outside of Europe. Even hospitals make space for beauty; the bird that sits atop The Wayfinder sculpture at the entrance to the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children is a symbol of hope, wisdom and life.

Canberra may be the nation’s head but its unwavering embrace of the beautiful gives us our heart and soul, too.

Top image credit: Foggy Wake in a Desert: An Ecosphere by Fujiko Nakaya in the National Gallery of Australia Sculpture Garden.

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