A grand monument to Modernism is rising on the banks of the Fitzroy River. Find out why Rockhampton, Queensland, deserves a spot on every art-lover’s travel list in 2021.

As Australia’s beef capital, Rockhampton is more famous for its steaks than its nationally significant art collection. But that’s set to change when the Queensland city welcomes visitors to the new jewel in its crown, Rockhampton Museum of Art, in late 2021.

Rockhampton’s premier cultural attraction will occupy more than 4700 square metres of space in the Riverside Precinct (pictured top), fronting the Fitzroy River (Tunuba) and adjacent to heritage-listed Customs House (pictured below) in the CBD. History and technology will meet in the multimillion-dollar structure by Clare Design, Conrad Gargett and Brian Hooper Architect, which is more than six times the size of the collection’s previous home.

Rockhampton Customs House

Rockhampton Museum of Art will be the largest gallery in regional Queensland, with more than 1500 square metres of exhibition space in which to display our 3000-strong collection of Australian and international paintings, works on paper, photographs and objects,” says director Bianca Acimovic.

While only 54 years old, the art collection boasts many gems of Australian Modernism, including works by Grace Cossington Smith, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, Jeffrey Smart, Margaret Olley and Fred Williams.

One of Acimovic’s favourite works is Tropic of Capricorn (1975) by the greatly respected abstract painter and printmaker John Coburn. “Rockhampton is located on the Tropic of Capricorn so I love that it resonates with the place and the people here,” she says of the large, vividly coloured canvas.

Rockhampton Museum of Art Quilty & Barton artworks

The Evo Project: Sheep Wash Road (2012) by Ben Quilty, oil on canvas, purchased with funds from Rockhampton Art Gallery Trust, the Kele family and public donations, 2012. Sapling (2014) by Del Kathryn Barton, acrylic on linen, acquired with funds from Rockhampton Art Gallery Trust, Rockhampton Regional Council, Friends of Rockhampton Art Gallery and public donations, 2014-2015.

Contemporary Australian painting is a highlight of the collection. “Since 2010 we have held the Gold Award, an annual acquisitive painting prize worth $50,000,” says Acimovic, adding that the 2021 award will be one of the museum’s opening exhibitions. “Through the Gold Award we have been able to acquire paintings by well-known contemporary artists such as Del Kathryn Barton and Ben Quilty.”

Rockhampton Museum of Art rendering

An artist’s impression of the 4700-square-metre redeveloped Rockhampton Museum of Art, located in the vibrant Riverside Precinct adjacent to historic Customs House.

The new Rockhampton Museum of Art sits back from the street and features soaring glass façades “so you can stand on Quay Street and see through the museum to Customs House”, explains Acimovic. “Inside, there are vistas up to Mount Archer — known as Nurim in the Darumbal language of the area’s Traditional Owners — and out onto the Fitzroy River or Tunuba.”

A highlight of the opening weekend will be the unveiling of a wall-based composition by in-demand Indigenous artist Dale Harding, a descendant of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples of Central Queensland. The $100,000 commission was made possible by a group of 20 generous donors.

Dale Harding creates large-scale wall drawings, often using natural ochres that he transfers onto the surface of the wall with his breath,” says Acimovic. “His work for the museum will occupy the long gallery area and could be up to four storeys in height and 25 metres in length.”

The artist is currently consulting with Elders and Traditional Owners in the community about the form and content of the commission. “Dale recognises place and country in his works and is grounded and respectful,” she says. “He is highly regarded both here and internationally and we are excited to be working with him.”

Rockhampton Museum of Art’s launch weekend is expected to coincide with a program of events in and around the museum and riverside. Acimovic and her team are organising a special program of artist talks, presentations and performances to entice audiences from near and far to the region to explore the showstopping new building and Rockhampton’s nationally significant collection.

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An art-lover's guide to a weekend getaway in Rockhampton

Where to eat

For a pre-museum caffeine fix, Rockhampton Museum of Art’s Bianca Acimovic recommends Coffee Society (126 East Street; 0408 335 908). “You have to line up but it’s worth it.” Come lunchtime, grab a double cheeseburger with two 110-gram patties of prime local beef from hometown favourite Take Eat Easy Burgers (143 Musgrave Street; 0426 865 875) and devour it by the river. Around the corner from the Museum of Art, in a century-old building with a graceful cast-iron verandah, the Heritage Hotel Rockhampton (228 Quay Street; 07 4927 6996) serves up 300-gram rump steaks and oysters by the half dozen.

Where to stay

Empire Apartment Hotel is a 4.5-star riverside property a five-minute stroll from the museum. All 115 self-contained apartments and suites have balconies (the three-bedroom penthouse on the 12th floor has views of the Fitzroy River and Mount Archer) and there’s an outdoor pool pavilion, fitness centre and three dining venues. For a fresh take on dinner, book a river fishing charter, hook a barra or king threadfin then bring it back to the hotel, where a chef will cook it up in your apartment.

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