Skip to main content

Andrew Sayers AM

1957 – 2015

Andrew Sayers AM (1957–2015) was inaugural Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Born in England, Sayers came to Australia with his parents at the age of six and grew up in Mt Kuringai. A keen artist and observer of nature from boyhood, he formed a precocious determination to become an art historian and graduated in Art History from the University of Sydney in 1979. Having been Registrar of Collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in 1981 he became Assistant Director at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. In 1985 he moved to Canberra to become Curator of Australian Drawings and then Assistant Director (Collections) at the National Gallery of Australia. In 1989 he published Drawing in Australia, and in 1994 Aboriginal Artists of the 19th Century, a work for which he received the HE Stanner Award of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. He was appointed Director of the new National Portrait Gallery in April 1998. While committed to the development of the NPG as a centre for biography and history, Sayers signalled his exciting vision for the institution with The Possibilities of Portraiture (1999), comprising a mixture of historical and contemporary works in various media. In his first year at the Gallery – while writing, in the early mornings, Australian Art for the Oxford History of Art series – he established policy, made press appearances, commissioned artworks, conceived exhibitions, wrote acquisition proposals for individual works and researched, wrote and edited text for display in the Gallery. Over eleven years, during which the staff of the institution increased fivefold, he conceived or worked in partnership to create the exhibitions Arthur Boyd Portraits (1999-2000); Heads of the People (2000); Nolan Heads (2001); Intimate Portraits (2002); Contemporary Australian Portraits (2002-2003); POL: Portrait of a generation (2003); To Look Within: Self-portraits in Australia (2004); The World of Thea Proctor (2005); Clifton Pugh Australians (2005-2006) and Open Air: Portraits in the landscape (2008). At the same time, from 2003 onward, he argued for a dedicated building for the National Portrait Gallery - which was promised in 2004, commenced in 2006 and opened at the end of 2008. Sayers was awarded an AM in 2010 and the same year accepted the position of Director of the National Museum of Australia, where he oversaw major building works and staff restructuring and vitalised the display. Between 2005 and 2014 he ran fifteen marathons, but after retiring in 2013 concentrated on painting full-time. His commanding self-portrait featured in the 2014 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, and his depiction of art historian Tim Bonyhady was an Archibald Prize finalist for 2015.

Updated 2018