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Wonderful art gallery, pity about the café memories

The NGA and that can of water as art. Digital mischief by Paul Costigan

PAUL COSTIGAN uses a digitally altered photograph of the National Gallery and unhappy personal memories to share a story about the gallery’s cafe.

BEFORE you wonder what the image above is about – it is a digitally altered photograph of the National Gallery of Australia here in Canberra. I’ll explain later in this piece.

Paul Costigan.

The National Gallery holds fabulous collections. I enjoy being able to wander in to see old friends as well as to ponder on new arrivals. Part of the experience used to be to also take time out alone or with colleagues in the NGA café when it was downstairs to the north of the building.

Over time this café lost some of its appeal. Part of that was probably the introduction of paid parking. For whatever reason, several years ago it was closed and the only café now is the outside sidewalk tent café near the entrance.

I am sure it is used by some tourists, given they have little other choice. But given the extremes of heat and cold in this city, plus on weekdays you will also be paying for your parking, the NGA sidewalk café would not be rated highly as a place to go.

It has been disappointing that over the decades something was not done to get the café located somewhere significant inside near the entrance. When the building of the new wing and entrance was announced, there was an expectation that the gallery would have the architects include a new restaurant and café somewhere along the new frontage. Not so.

The opportunity is still there and there are stories of a new one being contemplated. It could be built into the building on the southside next to the entrance and extending into the special venue so that the restaurant and café would open out onto the new gardens on the south side and not be bound by the gallery opening hours. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, I have my own café experience to tell. 

At the end of 2021, the NGA’s Jeffrey Smart major exhibition had opened and I had identified a day that was most likely to be fairly quiet. I was correct. Few were there, so it was a peaceful amble around the works. 

After about 40 minutes I decided it was time to eat and drink something.

I went off to that sidewalk café for a sandwich, coffee and some water. Unfortunately, they did not do sandwiches and instead I was offered one of those pre-prepared, stored-in-the-fridge rolls. The woman serving said it was turkey and something. I also ordered a coffee and sparkling water.

The roll was just edible and I’m still not sure what it resembled, but the taste stays with me to this day. The coffee was okay. The surprise was the sparkling water, it was in fact a can of still water.

Rather than taking it back (in exchange for sparkling, if they had any), I decided it was worth keeping as a souvenir.

Every time I approach the NGA and see that sidewalk café, to which I have yet to return, I think of that experience and the expensive plain water in the designer can. 

In the photo above of the front of the NGA, the artwork on the lawns has been replaced by that can of water to represent my thoughts as I approach the gallery. Not a pleasant memory.

The NGA remains a great art collection but the same cannot be said of its café. Maybe it has improved – but I remain hesitant to find out.

The NGA sculpture garden… a treasure to be enjoyed. Photo: Paul Costigan

I have written about the NGA’s fabulous sculpture garden before, City News July 23 2022. Therefore, I will not repeat all that. 

Do remember that the sculpture garden is there waiting for you to take a stroll and enjoy the shrubbery, the open spaces, the artworks as well as the views over the lake. It remains a treasure to be enjoyed.

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Paul Costigan

Paul Costigan

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2 Responses to Wonderful art gallery, pity about the café memories

cbrapsycho says: 3 June 2023 at 7:24 am

Sadly, the NGA is no longer a place to eat, drink coffee or wine whilst chatting with friends or family. Instead I go across to the Portrait Gallery or further along to the National Library.

I used to love taking my grandson to workshops at the NGA whilst I wandered the gallery. When he finished we’d go upstairs to the members’ lounge for lunch. Overlooking the treetops we’d chat for hours, as it was such a delightful location with good food. Now, it only does coffee & tea with a few biscuits. No incentive to be a member any more for me.

It was also sad when the workshops terminated for children once they reached the age of 12, as the interest was still there but the opportunities missing. That ended the regular involvement of art at a time when it could have been extremely valuable to the child going into puberty and teenage years. It also ended our long lunches and chats in the treetops. I am hugely disappointed in the offerings of the gallery these days so visit rarely. The art is still good, but without the other offerings it is no longer a day out. Short visits only.

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TrishEleanor says: 3 June 2023 at 5:23 pm

Exactly, go to the National Portrait Gallery, or National Library, with its marvellous stained glass. If NLA is busy, or you want a quick snack, go downstairs there. Sad about NGA cafe; I hate to say disgrace; maybe it’s lack of funds.

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