Discover Canberra’s Alternative Art Scene

‘Skywhale’ is one of Canberra’s best-loved public artworks
‘Skywhale’ is one of Canberra’s best-loved public artworks | © Ian Mckenzie / Alamy
Lucy Ridge

Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is home to some of the country’s finest galleries, museums and cultural institutions. These grand establishments have inspired a community of artists and art lovers in the city. Alongside the national galleries, there are a number of excellent smaller businesses that showcase a diverse mix of artists. These more intimate galleries allow developing artists to hone their craft and be bold with their practice. For this reason, culturally blessed Canberra is a great place for creative travellers to visit.

Public Art around Canberra

‘Wide Brown Land’ in the National Arboretum in Canberra was a collaboration between Marcus Tatton, Chris Viney and Kate Owen

Love it, or hate it, Canberra has a lot of public art. A government initiative in the early 2000s saw a slew of new pieces pop up around the capital. There are now more than 100 works of public art on display, but there are a few clear standouts.

Bruce Armstrong’s huge sculpture of The Big Owl is meant to represent Australia’s largest species of owl, the powerful owl, but it is more famous (or perhaps infamous) for its phallic shape. Most people know it as “The Great Penis Owl of Canberra” and it is found in Belconnen.

Wide Brown Land is a sculpture inspired by the words of poet Dorothea Mackellar, and the curved form of the structure was built to resemble her cursive handwriting. The artwork was conceived by artist Marcus Tatton, writer Chris Viney and graphic artist Kate Owen, and is a feature of the National Arboretum that appears regularly in photographs and souvenirs.

Patricia Piccinini’s hot air balloon Skywhale first graced the skies above Canberra in 2013. Commissioned as part of centenary celebrations in the city, the artwork has been exhibited all over the world but has now returned home after being donated to the National Gallery of Australia. It recently flew as part of the 2020 Canberra Balloon Spectacular and the artist has been commissioned to make a Skywhale Papa companion piece. You may not be lucky enough to see it in full flight, but Skywhale has been inspirational and you’ll find it on postcards and local souvenirs.

1. Burrunju Art Gallery

Art Gallery

© Sacred Mountains and Waterways by Lyn Talbot / Burrunju Gallery

Located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin’s western basin, this not-for-profit gallery is dedicated to displaying the works of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The gallery displays a mix of traditional and contemporary canvas paintings, as well as beautifully crafted objects including didgeridoos. The gallery provides the opportunity for Indigenous artists to have meaningful employment and develop their artistic practices. It also runs community engagement programmes designed to improve the cultural connection of young people.

2. Canberra Glassworks

Art Gallery

Glass artists at work in the Canberra Glassworks. Image shot 12/2007. Exact date unknown.
© Rob Walls / Alamy

A visit to the Canberra Glassworks gives visitors the opportunity to see artists at work and to appreciate their finished products. You can watch the artists in residence as they work in the Hotshop – a workshop space where raw materials are manipulated at extremely high temperatures as artists melt, blow, twist and shape the glass. Exhibitions are held to display the finished products and the resident creatives also host public lectures. Members of the public can book private lessons to create their own piece of art or join a weekly historical tour to learn about the building’s fascinating beginnings as the Kingston Powerhouse.

3. Gallery of Small Things

Art Gallery

© Gallery of Small Things

At under six square metres (65 square feet) and housed in a converted 1960s laundry block in the suburbs, this gallery is a unique space. As Canberra’s tiniest walk-in gallery, the Gallery of Small Things aims to promote the Danish concept of hygee through the joy of little objects. Regular exhibitions from artists rotate through the tiny space, with a particular focus on creators from the local area. There’s plenty of variety in the forms of art, with jewellery, textiles, wood block carvings and ceramics all featured. Most of the pieces displayed are for sale if you’d like to introduce some hygee into your own home.

4. ANU School of Art & Design

Art Gallery

IMG_6758 - Saskia Morris_0
© Saskia Morris, Azimuths and All Between, 2018, Schlieren photography, cyanotype, masking fluid, ink, dishwashing liquid, wax pencil and graphite, 112 x 160 cm. Photograph: Rory Gillen

It’s appropriate that the school of Art and Design is situated in one of the most beautiful buildings on the Australian National University campus. The iconic Art Deco structure is home to studio-learning programmes for students to develop their skills in a multitude of mediums from ceramics, jewellery and painting to photography and media arts. The gallery spaces are open to the public and host exhibitions of work from graduate and postgraduate artists, as well as travelling exhibitions from around Australia and works from the broader arts community in Canberra. A favourite is the annual graduation exhibition which showcases the hard work of each next generation.

5. Tributary Projects

Art Gallery

© Meg Driver (A Structure Unseen) / Tributary Projects

A more recent addition to Canberra’s dynamic art scene is Tributary Projects, a studio and exhibition space run by and for artists. It aims to support a wide range of creatives, focusing on diversity and inclusivity. As well as developing visual artists, the company also produces contemporary literature through their small-scale publishing project Heavy Water. Spirit Theatre is a space to showcase and support electronic music and sound work from alternative producers. The gallery produces a mix of shows, both group and individual exhibitions, with art that uses a variety of forms and materials. People at any stage of their career are welcome to take part in the projects with an aim towards developing and broadening the local and national arts conversation.

6. Canberra Contemporary Art Space

Art Gallery

Izabela Pluta installation view

The Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS) runs two separate galleries, one in East Space by Lake Burley Griffin in the Parliamentary Triangle and the other in Manuka. Both sites run exhibitions of contemporary Australian art by emerging and established artists. The CCAS galleries aim to promote a space where artists can take risks, be bold and showcase new and ambitious works. Established in 1981, the CCAS has long been an important part of the Canberra art community and over the course of its history has supported the development of many artists working in disciplines often overlooked by traditional art establishments.

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