History of Manly Art Gallery & Museum 

MAG&M is the oldest metropolitan purpose-built regional gallery in NSW.

The Gallery’s aim has always been to collect and present to the public an excellent and coherent selection of artworks and museum objects reflecting the artistic and regional heritage of Australian art and life. Today, it houses the permanent collection of over 6,000 objects in a range of media including paintings, works on paper, ceramics and museum objects, documents and photographs.

In 1930, the ‘Manly Art Gallery and Historical Collection’ was physically established on its present site in West Esplanade Reserve. The building was formerly a concert pavilion designed by architect Hedley V. Graham and constructed by Mr. T Hastings, costing £1000 to construct. It opened on Wednesday 15 November 1922. Manly local history library records show that a performer called ‘The Poster King’ had an open air show in the pavilion in the 1920s. His name was Arthur Neven von Tosseau (or von Tossau).

More information came to light from the oral history of the late Bert Owen, ‘The Poster King had three big easels on the stage and he would do lightning sketches like Rolf Harris, (for) White Wings Flour and all this sort of thing and of course he was paid for that and then after the interval he’d do another three (shows) there. He had some good artists there and of course why I know all this was, I worked at the Serenaders as a boy… I worked at the Poster King’s and he used to pay me 7/6d a week which was a lot of money you know, in those days. 

Manly Council Minutes dated 12 October 1926 record the lease of the West Esplanade Concert Pavilion to A. N. Tosseau for 12 months for £108 per annum (the only tender received). And from the Sydney Morning Herald 17 November 1922, ‘At the opening of the Concert Pavilion, Mr. Tosseau arranged a vaudeville programme for the 10,000 people who attended’.

Given the melding of visual art with vaudeville, perhaps it was seen as a logical extension that Manly Council agreed with artist Charles Bryant’s suggestion to use the building as a gallery. As Mr Tosseau was reported to have died in 1927 in a car accident, there may have been no immediate use of the pavilion for performances. Unfortunately the shell backed onto the raw sandstone cliff face near the out flow of storm water drainage and the fact that a swamp mahogany tree was originally on this site indicates how wet this foreshore was. It is water damage from storms, the natural stream and storm water outflow that has caused problems for the safe storage of the collection over time.

Nevertheless in 1930 the adaptive re-use went ahead with the closing in of the archway and the opening of a display of paintings and historical material. The twelve committee members appointed by Manly Council to bring the idea to fruition included Mr J R Trennery editor of The Manly Daily, artists, Charles Bryant and Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, and historian Percy Gledhill. The scheme started in 1924 and in The Manly Daily reporting on the first public meeting 28 Feb 1924: ‘We the undersigned consider that it would be a distinct loss and almost a catastrophe if the prize-winning picture, painted by Mr Jackson, artist, and exhibited at the ‘Manly Daily’ Art Exhibition should pass out of the district of Manly in the event of it being purchased privately’.

First committee of Manly Art Gallery, 1924:
A Dattilo-Rubbo, Percy Nolan, Charles Bryant, Herbert Marriner, Hermon Slade, Henry Forsyth, Percy Gledhill, B. Hope-Johnston, J. R. Trenerry, A Samuels 

This painting by James Jackson was the first purchase to come into the collection and cost £100. The Council was to then become the trustee of the picture until such time as a public gallery could be built. Anyone donating 10 guineas or more was entitled to the honour of having his or her name on the Founder’s Roll, which was limited to the first 50 subscribers. James Jackson himself was one of the first to donate his 10 guineas.

On 14th June, 1930 the Art Gallery building was formally opened by His Honour, the Chief Justice Sir Phillip Street. In the course of his address Sir Phillip congratulated the people of Manly on having such an excellent selection of examples of the work of prominent Australian artists:

 ‘The fact that Manly Art & Historical Society has been in existence for a little more than six years, and the fact that today we are present at the formal opening of a building which has been erected for the purpose of housing and exhibiting this collection, shows that the civic authorities and the residents of Manly recognise that material prosperity is not enough in itself but that it should be accompanied and enlightened by the development of refined and cultivated tastes.’

By this time the collection had increased to 200 exhibits including 79 paintings and 62 historical photographs. The maintenance and care of the works was the responsibility of the voluntary Manly Art and Historical Committee consisting of 3 artists, 3 historians, 6 laymen or administrators, and 3 aldermen nominated by Council which brought the committee to fifteen. Some of these members were on the committee for the best part of three decades.

The Chair of the committee Mr J R Trennery (editor of The Manly Daily newspaper) stayed on the committee with Mr Percy Walter Gledhill, Hon. Treasurer, and Mr Hermon Slade, Hon. Secretary for 27 years and Mr Herbert  Richard Marriner also Hon Secretary until the 1950s. Slade and Gledhill resigned in 1950 and the Hon. Secretary H R Marriner resigned due to ill health in 1957 – by this time, these gentlemen were in their late 70s and 80s. This record of devotion to the MAHC certainly assisted in the survival and development of this cultural facility in the Manly area.

In July 1931, the Art Gallery building was damaged by a severe gale, whereby the parapet on top of the Gallery crashed through the roof. However, repairs were swiftly effected and the building was reopened in September of the same year.

The collection was further augmented in March 1939, when Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo presented a valuable group of 100 works including his own paintings, works on paper, watercolours and etchings, plus a number of classical plaster models as well as works by other artists from his private collection including: Lister Lister, A Rossini, H. S Power, John Richard Flanagan, Seymour Lucas, Grace Cossington Smith and Daniel Vere-Smith  (The classical plaster models are now located in the restored chapel at the National Art School in Forbes St Darlinghurst).

To mark this significant and generous donation, Manly Council financed construction of an annexe to house this collection, called the ‘Dattilo-Rubbo Room’, which was opened on 26th September 1940 by the Mayor, Ald. A. Hanson Norman.

The middle gallery continues to be named in Rubbo’s honour as upon his death in 1955 he bequeathed more of his paintings and a sum of £500 to be invested to pay for the care of the collections.

Manly Art Gallery in 1940

Also in 1940, Col. A. Spain added 5 notable works including Tom Roberts' The Flower Sellers, and A.H. Fullwood's Cow Pastures. These oils, and a watercolour by Tom Roberts, The Bullock Team, added prestige to the collection. Few other donations and little activity had marked the previous depression years. However, two important gifts were received during the following war years, including the bas-relief Inspiration by the English sculptor, Francis W. Sargant, which was placed in front of the building and is now located in the forecourt garden of the Gallery.

In 1947, Mr. P.S. Garling donated 55 paintings, a valuable gift including works by George Lambert and William Charles Piguenit, as well as various European painters. As stated in the early catalogues, ‘some were old masters, some were of dubious origin but there were also some fine Australian works’.

The growth of the collection increased the acute problem of hanging and storage space. Tentative plans for an extension to the building were drawn up in 1949 but were shelved, and with little interest shown by the Council, due to its focus elsewhere, the 1950s became the most difficult period in the history of the Gallery – the state of the building deteriorated and the pictures suffered from leakages, mould and the lack of storage facilities. There was also no staff during the 1950s and the gradual loss of committee members due to illness, absences and retirements created a political problem for Manly Council.

In 1957, in the 33rd  annual report of MAHC, the Patron was listed as The Hon Sir Kenneth Street, Chief Justice of NSW, Vice Patrons, Messrs. Erik Langker and Lawson Balfour, Chairman, The Mayor, Vice Chairman Mr W. Hermon Slade, Hon Secretary Mr H.G Twigden, Hon Treasurer Mr.H.D.G. Timbs. The rest of the committee included R.W Baker, P.W Gledhill, J.W. Hayes, Capt. CW.T. Henderson, J.F. Hughes, James Jackson, H.R. Marriner, C. P. Rowe, Lyall Trindall, R. Star and J.A. Snowdon, with Aldermen G.E. Whittle and C.T. Moss representing the Council.

Interest had also declined due to lack of financial support and maintenance and renovations to the building, much to the frustration of the Manly Art Gallery Committee and honoraria paid director Barri De Groom and the Hon. Secretary Mrs. Dorter who both resigned. They saw there was no point in exhibiting the collection until the renovations were made to improve the facility.

Finally in 1966 after much discussion and the successful seeking of financial assistance, Manly Council approved plans for the extension and renovation of the Art Gallery. This included an additional gallery, a storeroom, a new ceiling, a new entrance through the Rubbo annexe and improved lighting. The renovated building was opened on 7th October 1966.

Manly Council also reinstated the Honorarium for a Gallery Director. Mrs Clarice Thomas, was appointed, took over the care of the collection and also became an honorary director of the committee. Clarice Thomas was the daughter of the late John Young, co-founder of the Macquarie Galleries, and had previously carried out restoration work on a number of paintings in the collection. The program of cleaning and restoration of works was commenced. Her first task was to assemble the works which had been scattered throughout Council premises. She also undertook preventative treatment for many works in the collection, thus ensuring for the first time appropriate care and concern was exercised.

From this time on, the collection grew steadily and was properly catalogued for the first time. An active exhibition program followed with exhibitions of the collection being interspersed with loans and travelling exhibitions. An Acquisition Fund was established in 1967 with the idea of attracting a membership which would support the Gallery and augment the meagre funds available for acquisitions. This group is now the Manly Art Gallery and Museum Society.

Clarice Thomas instigated a six month program of exhibitions and fundraising activities through the weekly classes of the Manly Art Group, colour and the Women's Auxiliary Committee, new volunteers who gave assistance with events and openings. She also built a relationship with the NSW Department of Education to attract younger audiences.

In 1962, artists Eric Langker, Alan Baker and Rubery Bennett were the judges in the newly established Manly Art Prize. Roland Wakelin judged it in 1965 and some of the more contemporary works in our collection by artists Strom Gould, John Santry and Alex McMillan came from this competition. Later, in 1968, the Manly Art Prize was altered to become a 'Selection' exhibition at which purchases for the Gallery collection were selected by an art panel. Contemporary works by artists such as Hector Gilliland, Stan de Teliga, Guy Warren and Brian Dunlop were acquired through the Manly Art Prize (1962-1984). 

Many artists and historians have given their time and judgement to the committee since 1930 and onwards to 2010. Based on the MAG&M minutes of meetings, some of these artists were Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, Charles Bryant, Lawson Balfour, James Jackson, Sydney Long, Will Ashton, G K Townshend, Harold Greenhill, Rubery Bennett, Lyall Trindall, Allan Grieve, Newton Hedstrom, Cameron Bannerman, Warren Langley, Helge Larsen, hereas the Historical collection was nurtured by PW Gledhill, (1930 to 1953 for 29 years) LC Wellings, Capt C W Henderson and Major Swinbourne. 

This was a period when the collection expanded with contemporary works by the artists who taught at the National Art School, such as John Coburn, Frank Hinder, Douglas Dundas and Ralph Balson as well as members of the Contemporary Art Society and teachers at the Julian Ashton School, as well as Dattilo Rubbo’s ex-students. 

Also in 1968, led by Clarice Thomas, the Gallery held its first ceramic exhibition that included over 130 items by invited potters from which was purchased the first two pots of its collection, a Peter Rushforth and a Hiroe Swen. Nowhere in Sydney could a permanent display of ceramics be seen and selections from the collection continue to be displayed in 2010 due to a major bequest by Lady Askin in 1984. 

With a more active acquisitions program and adhering to the policy of small intimate works for small galleries, the Manly Art Gallery has been able to purchase representative works by Michael Kmit and Desiderius Orban, two of a number of pre-war refugee artists and notable works by Godfrey Miller, Kevin Connor, Donald Friend, Rodney Milgate, Thomas Gleghorn, Carl Plate, Jean Appleton and Clem Millward, as well as some purchases to fill areas in earlier periods. A major purchase of The Annunciation by Tom Thompson was made in 1981.

Between 1966 and 1983 a wide range of exhibitions were held, reflecting both local and national developments in Australian art. The roles of both Harold Greenhill and Dattilo-Rubbo in fostering art in Manly were acknowledged in retrospective exhibitions in 1979 and 1980, respectively.

State Government support was sought for the establishment of The Regional Galleries Association of NSW in 1972, of which Manly was one of the foundation members. This organisation still exists alongside Museums and Galleries NSW, to assist and advise regional galleries on maintaining professional standards and providing new programs and professional development opportunities in best practice across the Museums and Galleries field. Funding from the NSW State Government through the grants process has been of great assistance in gaining professionally paid staff and acquisitions over the past forty years. 

In May 1976, the Gallery suffered a severe setback with the theft of six important works from the collection – the renowned and much loved Tom Roberts’ The Flower Sellers, Sir Arthur Streeton’s Nude, Lloyd Rees’ The Barn, Parramatta and Grecian Memories, Swans and Peacocks, a watercolour by Norman Lindsay and William Dobell’s drawing Portrait of Billy Frost.

The Flower Sellers and Swans and Peacocks were returned in January 1983. 'This gave renewed hope that the other works would surface. wrote Clarice Thomas in 1990, not long afterwards dear old Lloyd Rees phoned me and said that he believed that The Old Barn had been found in Melbourne. The outcome was the return of not only The Old Barn but he other three pictures as well.'

In 1978, a free monthly film program was introduced featuring cultural films relating to art, architecture, archaeology, history, natural history and travel. In 1977 further air-conditioning was installed, with financial support from the Manly Council, and a year later the State Government provided for a new lighting system. These improvements brought the Gallery up to a standard desired for its collection; a further grant in 1981 from the Division of Cultural Activities, to assist with the salary for a full-time Director, assured the permanent care of the art works and a continuous program of exhibitions.

On 17th March 1981, Clarice Thomas was appointed full-time Director of the Manly Art Gallery, after acting as Honorary Director for some fourteen years. A grant received in the same year from the NSW Ministry for the Arts also contributed towards the building of a Museum to adjoin the Gallery on the eastern side. The name Manly Art and Historical Collection was discarded at this stage as new terms of reference were drawn up for the new entity. A foundation in support of the Manly Museum was initiated to raise extra funds to match the State Government grant. The art collection was moved off site while the building was upgraded. At this stage in the history of the Gallery and Museum there seems to have been a natural watershed in the operations and funding, with more government support and professionalisation of staff and better collections management.

These significant renovations provided a new entrance and reception area creating a spacious introduction to the exhibition galleries. The Rubbo Room was doubled in size and a kitchen and loading dock were installed to serve both Art Gallery and Museum. Architects Cox, Tanner and Partners redesigned the Art Gallery and Museum, which was opened by the Premier, Mr Neville Wran, on 13th September, 1982, by which time the complex had been officially named the Manly Art Gallery & Museum. The addition of an area to be used specifically as a Museum was largely the result of the vision and efforts of Mayor Ald Joan Thorburn and General Manager of Manly Council, Mr Wayne Collins. Mrs Jean Hay was the Chair of the fundraising committee and organized the first function at the Manly Pacific Hotel called the Museum Ball to raise funds for the fitting out of the Museum. An editioned gold coin was struck for the occasion and No.1 was gifted to Premier Neville Wran when he officially opened the Museum.

Clarice Thomas retired in 1982 after the Museum addition. The Museum had its own Director Mr Warren Wickman who was appointed during 1982 to bring the first Museum exhibition to fruition. The subsequent professional and salaried joint Gallery & Museum Directors that followed are: Peter Timms from 1983 to 1986, Michael Pursche from 1987 to 1998 and Therese Kenyon from 1999 to early 2011. Jackie Dunn began as Director in mid 2011.Manly Art Gallery & Museum has developed considerably since the major renovations in the 1960s and then later in 1980s with the opening of the Museum. The Bicentennial year exhibition Manly 200 Too! – Explore our History under the directorship of Michael Pursche led to the major exhibition In the Swim in the Museum, 1992-1999, that realigned the Museum towards beach culture as well as local history.

Politician Paul Keating and artist Reg Mombassa, Manly Art Gallery, 1990

Since the year 2000 internal changes have been made with a mezzanine storage for the Museum collection of beach culture in 2001, a refurbished kitchen in 2004, a new administration and photography storage area in 2008 and more recently in 2009 a new fit-out for the reception and gallery shop. 

The Gallery’s Australian painting collection is strong, with the emergence of the Sydney Moderns between the wars and post WWII well represented. The ceramics collection on permanent display gives an overview of Australian ceramic production for the 1960s to the present with artists Peter Rushforth, Janet Mansfield, Marea Gazzard, Gwynne Hansen Piggott, Prue Venables, Janet de Boos, Lex Dickson and many others. More recently there has been an expansion of the works on paper and contemporary photography collection.

The ability to purchase some major works over the last decade was realised through the Theo Batten Bequest, established in 2002 to assist with acquisitions of a more substantial nature that would fill gaps in the collection. Also the bequest given by this late local artist Theo Batten, provides a Youth Art Award of $5,000 alongside the MAG&M Society’s Youth Art Award of $2000. Some of the artists whose work has been purchased through the Batten Bequest are: Guy Warren, Hadyn Wilson, Michael Callaghan, Robert Boynes, John Olsen, Peter Kingston, Merilyn Fairskye and Joshua Yeldham. Again the problems of storage have emerged with offsite premises being a future possibility for a portion of the collection. 

MAG&M presents approximately 18 exhibitions annually and has generated and curated many major touring and in-house exhibitions particularly over the last ten years such as: ‘

Celebrating Paradise, Leisureland – Anne Zahalka, Nigel Thomson – Critical  Realist, Larsen and Lewers, Luminous – Contemporary Art from the Australian Desert, State of Art-Peace, Artists as Social Commentators and Activists, Robert McFarlane – Received Moments, In Paradise, Michael Callaghan – a Survey, Bruce Goold – artist, designer, printmaker, Michael Esson – Mixed Metaphors.

In the 1960s Manly staged events such as Manly’s Mardi Gras and The Festival of the Pines. Today we are responsible for the Public Art program and heritage and local history exhibitions. We continue to respond to annual celebrations such as Heritage Week in April and the Guringai Festival in May/June/July, and coordinate the Manly Arts Festival in September.

Over the last decade or so the exhibitions have explored visual culture through a lively program of local, regional, national and international exhibitions reflecting contemporary art practice, cultural diversity and the heritage of this region. 

The Gallery has maintained partnerships with peak national arts and crafts organisations such as The Australian Ceramics Association and The Quilters’ Guild of NSW Inc. It has also worked with the Northern Beaches College of TAFE on exhibitions and regional high schools to select and exhibit major works by Higher School Certificate visuals arts students. A dedicated space titled the Access Gallery extending from the museum was established in response to artists from the region wanting more representation and exposure in their regional gallery. In the past decade alone we have featured solo exhibitions by over 100 regional artists and many more in group exhibitions. 

As in previous decades we rely very much on volunteers to assist with reception, installing exhibitions and cataloguing. MAG&M trained gallery guides to conduct the guided tour program, called Sundays@theGallery, led by volunteer Shirley Neil. This has allowed the value-adding of programs to each exhibition with artists and curator’s talks, Kids Art Activities, Life drawing studios, concerts and literature programs and events. In 2012, the Gallery is also trialling late opening on the first Thursday of every month. 

Today the Gallery prides itself on original research for exhibitions, its robust program and its responsible collection management. The collegiality and dedication of our professional staff, and the assistance of our dedicated volunteers and researchers, ensures the rigour and success of the program.

There have been annual exhibitions devoted to the collection especially in the Museum but the contemporary changing exhibitions program has been the main focus in the Theo Batten Gallery in recent times. Even international exhibitions have been developed and shown at MAG&M over this period, sourced from India, The Netherlands, the USA, the UK and China.

Since its official beginning in 1985 the MAG&M Society has continued to fundraise on behalf of the Gallery & Museum and purchased works for the collections. The support from Society members is crucial for acquisitions and conservation and while their past contribution has been immeasurable, they continue to assist in those areas and are ready with other capital works projects that may be needed in the future.

Today Manly Art Gallery & Museum celebrates its ongoing role in the life of Manly and as the cultural hub of the northern beaches.

Edited essay by Therese Kenyon, former Director, Manly Art Gallery & Museum, 2010


I have used the archives of the Manly Art Gallery & Museum and read some historical research written by guest writers, interns, ex staff and students who have written theses and educational programs for the Gallery in the past and are maintained in our reference library.


  • Manly Art Gallery and Historical Collection archives in onsite reference library.
  • Book 1 - Public meeting to discuss the setting up of the Gallery with newspaper clippings. The establishment of the committee in 1924 and the minutes of the committee up to 1925.
  • Book 2 - Minutes of Committee from January 1926 – July 1935.
  • Book 3- Minutes of the committee from 16 September 1935 – 10 December 1956.
  • Manly Art Gallery & Museum newsletters, media clippings, records of exhibitions, curatorial catalogues, artists files and exhibition files.
  • Manly Art Gallery catalogues 1924-1949 small blue bound volume.
  • Minutes and annual reports from 1956-1999.


  • Heika Braha The History of the Manly Art Gallery & Museum (Excerpts). Fine Arts University of Sydney, 1995 (following her earlier essay 'A Brief History of Manly Art Gallery & Museum’, 1993*).
  • Robin Moorhouse A History of the Visual Arts and Crafts of the Northern Beaches 1949-1999.
  • Carmel Oakley Manly Art Gallery – an examination of its purpose, its function and its policies during the period 1924 to 1965. University of Sydney, Fine Arts IV, 1981.
  • Robyn Christie Manly Art Gallery – The Implementation of a Policy at the Manly Art Gallery from 1966 to 1981. University of Sydney, Arts IV Fine Arts , Museology.


  • Campbell Jean, Early Sydney Moderns – John Young and the Macquarie Galleries 1916-1946, Craftsman House, Roseville Sydney, 1988.
  • Peter Timms and Robyn Christie Cultivating the Country -  Living with the arts in regional Australia, Oxford University Press, Australia, 1988.
  • Allan McCulloch, Susan McCulloch, Emily McCulloch Childs The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions The Miegunyah Press Melbourne, Australia 2009.
  • Max Germaine A Dictionary of Women Artists of Australia Craftsman House, Sydney Australia, 1991.


  • Joseph Eisenberg A View of the Collections New England Regional Art Museum, 1997.
  • Therese Kenyon The Studio Tradition – National Art School 1883-2001, Manly Art Gallery & Museum 2001.
  • Jean Campbell, Cav. Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo – Painter, Teacher and some prominent pupils, Manly Art Gallery & Museum December 5 1980 to January 18, 1981. 


  • AGNSW, Powerhouse Museum, Dictionary of Australian artists online, National Gallery of Australia.

* Please note: a copy of the essay 'A Brief History of the Manly Art Gallery and Museum', researched and written by Heika Braha, 1993, is available at both the MAG&M reference library and Manly Library.