This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
1932 - 2015
Artist, art critic, television presenter, author, gallery director, and, of course, Courtauldian. Betty Churcher’s commitment to the arts and undeniable talent in bringing them to the masses still lingers in institutions she occupied over her life.
Born in Queensland, Australia, during the Depression, Churcher’s devotion to the arts was often tested by her father’s insistence that she would not be in need of an education past Year 10. Prevailing, though, was her vigour and determination and after obtaining a place to study under Patricia Prentice, and later Caroline Baker, it is evident that it was her life’s natural course to bring new ideas to both art and art history and to challenge the old.
Photograph by Adam Knott, 2008, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2013.67
Her career, arguably, had begun at the age of thirteen when she won the Sunday Mail’s children’s art contest. From here, Churcher began exhibiting with the Younger Artist’s Group of the Royal Queensland Art Society, of which she was later appointed chair. A constant source of light and trust, it is no surprise that Churcher won a travelling scholarship to study at undergraduate level at the Royal College of Art, out-achieving herself yet again by winning the Princess of Wales award for Best Female Student.
After meeting her husband and fellow artist Roy Churcher at the Royal College of Art, the couple decided to move back to Brisbane and begin their lives together, whilst also setting up a studio and holding public art classes. To Churcher, art and family really had no comparison – proving yet another strength in both character and mind. After all of her children had started at school, Churcher began writing and working again, creating the textbook Understanding Art, still used in art history classes today. This gave her the opportunity to return to education and fulfil her creative potential – and this time she chose to return to London and to complete an MA in History of Art at The Courtauld.
Having previously worked as a teacher and author, Churcher now had the tools to enforce massive changes to the art world. After being appointed Director of the National Gallery of Australia in 1990, she earned the nickname ‘Blockbuster Betty’ for presiding over twelve international shows in just seven years. It is clear that her spark was only ignited further by challenge, using her exhibitions to incite debate around the role of the public in the gallery, and provoking new conversation – most notably about the stigma around HIV and AIDS.
‘Blockbuster Betty’ is best remembered as a warm and charismatic personality, with whom staff felt comfortable and by whom empowered, to whom other directors looked for inspiration, and who remains a figure whose presence the public can feel when they step into one of her institutions. At The Courtauld, we are incredibly grateful to have known her courageous spirit, trailblazing power, and unstoppable drive.