OPINION: I first met Betty Churcher in the 1970s at an Art Association of Australia conference in Melbourne where she gave a paper on John Molvig, who was to be the subject of her first book. Betty, who went on to become the director of the National Gallery of Australia, died earlier today, aged 84.

Two memories of that first meeting stand out: the first was the stunned reaction of some academic art historians that someone who taught at a teachers' college – in Queensland! – should dare to speak with such freedom in an academic conference.

The second was the way she felt free to respond to the work over and above the rigid schemas that were then overtaking academic writing.

For Betty the art always came first, but she combined her love of art with an emotional intelligence and pragmatism that made her a rare creature indeed in the field of art administration.

Early days

Pragmatism meant that despite her early success as a young artist she knew she would never be great and so she stepped away from her creative career when her first child was born. After her fourth child started school she became the family breadwinner, enabling her husband, Roy Churcher, to be the artist while she went out to work, teaching art history at Kelvin Grove CAE.

This is where pragmatism meets imagination: women supporting their families are the dogsbody lecturers of universities and colleges worldwide. Because the family depended on her steady income, unlike many of her female colleagues, she was able to move interstate when opportunities arose.

Shortly after her debut at the Art Association conference she was appointed senior lecturer at Preston Institute of Technology in Melbourne (now a part of RMIT). She remembered the initial move to Melbourne as being especially hard on her family.

However she soon realised that the intuitive administrative skills acquired when being a parent are especially useful in public administration. In a recorded interview she spoke of almost accidentally becoming Head of School. To those who have followed her career trajectory this appears unlikely as she once said that the real art of career success is to be the invited candidate.

Her outstanding success at Preston, where she was one of only two senior women, was aided and abetted by her colleague Domenico de Clario. After he told her how the male heads of school were caucusing in the showers at the squash courts, she asked him to be her “mole”.

A rising star

Betty Churcher in 2007. AAP Image/Film Australia, John Tsiavis

Senior women in the arts were rare in the early 1980s; even so it was not a surprise when Betty was appointed as Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council. Here her good sense and non-partisan national vision meant that she soon became a dominant force.

She also came to the attention of Janet Holmes a Court, whose husband, Robert Holmes a Court was Chair of Trustees of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. The gallery was at that stage in a sorry state, with a recently departed director leaving a bitterly divided staff and alienated arts community. Betty Churcher was invited to apply and in 1987 became the first woman to be appointed director of a state art gallery.

She was a resounding success. Her ability to mentor junior colleagues to initiate exhibitions and expand the collection – while at the same time making both wealthy donors and grassroots supporters feel that the gallery belonged to them – completely reversed the gallery’s fortunes.

Churcher at the NGA

Because of her Western Australian success it was no surprise when, on the departure of James Mollison, she was invited to apply for the directorship of the (then) Australian National Gallery. The news media, with unerring inaccuracy, ignored her major achievements and described her as a “58-year old mother of four”.

One of the first changes she made was the name: the National Gallery of Australia.

That, and the stunning series of international exhibitions that she arranged for the gallery to organise, gave her the nickname “Betty Blockbuster”.

The significance of these exhibitions was that, where possible, she encouraged the scholarship of the curatorial staff and also used them to expand the National Gallery’s holdings of related work.Surrealism: Revolution by Night (1993) included the first scholarly survey of Australian Surrealist artists while Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS (1994) was the first art exhibition to examine the way artists were responding to HIV.

Not all her male colleagues were supportive of the very active National Gallery exhibition program. One senior curator sneeringly suggested that a “blockbuster” was another name for colonic irrigation. He found an appointment at another institution.

Because family commitments had meant the stellar stage of her career started late, she retired too soon in 1997 at the age of 66. There was a rumour that she would be invited to become Governor-General – but that did not happen. Instead she returned to art, communicating her enthusiasm and her love in ABC television talks and later in books illustrated by her own fine drawings.

If I had to sum up what was remarkable about Betty’s career it would be that whatever hand life dealt her, she played it well. She also understood that at various points in time people had reached out to help her, so she made a point of being a very supportive mentor to younger colleagues.

I find it sad though that, despite her outstanding success in leading two major art galleries in this country, we no longer have a woman state or national gallery director.

Joanna Mendelssohn is Associate Professor, Art & Design at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.