Exhibitions leading the Visual Arts sector in 2021

From state galleries to the small to medium sector, and with a focus on survey exhibitions and First Nations works, visual arts editor Gina Fairley takes a look at what will shape 2021.

2020 saw arts programming go out the window. It is surprising, then, that 2021 does not feel stale, a delayed serve of postponed shows.

Rather, it would appear that our galleries have created an exciting balance between long-track shows, new response outcomes and a scattering of those 2020 commitments – making 2021 a solid year for the visual arts.

Of note, while 2020 had a strong focus on rebalancing gender, with many exhibitions turned over to women artists, 2021 sees a strong embrace of the survey exhibition. This is a fantastic commitment to living artists (when most needed) and a celebration of those passed who deserve to be remembered.

I will be looking at exhibitions across our museum sector, and taking a deeper dive into the craft and design sector, in the week to come.

Bear in mind that many organisations are rolling out their 2021 exhibition programs in stages, responding to the still unstable environment of restrictions, so this overview is in many ways a ‘spotty teaser’ of the highlights.


Our state galleries are offering a good dose of blockbusters in 2021, committed to bringing major exhibitions to Australia despite the difficulties presented by COVID. But that is not all that our major visual arts organisations offer.

Read: 2021 Blockbuster art exhibitions and biennales

Opening 23 January, the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is kicking off the year with Fresh: Connecting New & Old Art, which brings together the gallery’s Aboriginal, Australian and South East Asian art collections. It will be an interesting nexus of geography and contemporary practice.

Detail from Tee Ken Ng’s zoetrope-animated video for Tim Minchin’s Leaving LA, 2020. Showing at the Art Gallery of WA. Photo: Tee Ken Ng.

In Perth, the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) sets the tone for the year with the exhibition Leaving LA (part of Perth Festival) curated by Robert Cook. It focuses on Perth artist, filmmaker and designer Tee Ken Ng, celebrated for his recent animated music video for Tim Minchin, and commissions with Google, Twitter, Netflix and Perrier.

This exhibition focuses on, and riffs off, zoetropes with an immersive and kinetic installation (30 January – 22 March). The gallery will finish its redevelopment in April, when it will launch its 2021 program under guest artistic director Ian Strange and signalling a new direction for AGWA – stay tuned.

The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) sees the return of exhibitions such as the Ramsay Art Prize and Tarnanthi in 2021, but it is the exhibition Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea (19 June – 12 September) that caught our eye. It will be the first major survey of the Czech-Australian brothers, whose arrival in Adelaide in 1948 set in motion a surge of new ideas and controversies that challenged the conventions of Australian art.

In a similar wave of change and convention-bucking, the National Gallery Victoria (NGV) rang in the year with the return of the NGV Triennial (showing until 18 April). Coming up is the exhibition Big Weather, a timely look at weather systems in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge. Showing at NGV Australia, Federation Square (12 March – October).

At the polar end of the year, Queer at NGV International (10 December 2021 – June 2022) will also rethink vernacular. Spanning historical eras and diverse media, the gallery says: ‘Rather than attempting to provide an encyclopedic history of queer art, the exhibition … [highlights] that queerness is intersectional, and that LGBTIQ2A+ rights are interwoven with other political and equality movements.’

In Canberra, the National Portrait Gallery’s big show of the year is Australian Love Stories (20 March – 1 August), while another kind of love is played out with Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhalepapa – a monumental sculpture in the form of a hot-air balloon that completes the Skywhale family. It was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and its maiden flight (postponed from 2020) is set for 6 February.

The NGA will roll out its Botticelli to Van Gogh blockbuster later this year, as well as the second half of the Know My Name exhibition.

Doug Aitken, SONG 1, 2012/2015. Installation view Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. 7-channel composited video installation. Image courtesy the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © the artist. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.

The big show for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in 2021 is American Doug Aitken. Along with the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) and Carriageworks, the MCA will also co-present the third and final edition of The National 2021: New Australian Art (26 March – 5 September).

The Archibald Prize turns 100this year at AGNSW – a national milestone for portraiture – and part of a well-balanced program at the gallery which includes survey exhibitions, new contemporary commissions and wraps up with a Matisse blockbuster from the Pompidou.

And in Hobart, the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery (TMAG) presented Around the World in 80 Objects (until 21 February) – giving punters a chance to “travel” the world through objects despite border closures – and Hobart Current, a major biennial program presented in partnership between the City of Hobart that seeks to nurture and showcase contemporary artists working across different media. Creative Director, Rosie Dennis has selected ten artists in response to the theme of ‘liberty’ for the inaugural exhibition in 2021 (postponed from 2020). 


There are a staggering number of solo and survey exhibitions slated for 2021.

One of the highlights will be AGSA’s Clarice Beckett survey, The present moment. Over 130 works, including those received in a major gift last year, will be shown together for the first time, thematically displayed around shifts in time that chart the chronology of one single day. Curated by Tracey Lock (27 February – 16 May).

Another influential female artist who is little recognised is Margel Hinder (wife of artist Frank Hinder). The AGNSW will reveal her dynamic yet overlooked, sculptural practices during the mid-20th century in the exhibition, Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion. Opens at AGNSW 30 January – 2 May, and then touring to Heide Museum of Modern Arts (VIC) 30 June – 10 October.

Heide is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2021, and its program reflects that with a suite of survey exhibition, among them the first museum survey of Australian artist Robert Owen’s work, grounded in geometry and abstraction across a 60-year career (27 February – 23 May).British light installation artist Bruce Munro: From Sunrise Road, set to include indoor and outdoor immersive works (12 June – 17 October) is also sure to please.

Heide will also present a survey of Ukrainian-Australian artist Stanislava Pinchuk’s work (20 March – 20 June). Titled Terra Data, it looks at her drawings capturing the changing topographies of war through data mapping, as well as terrazzo sculptures containing the detritus left behind by conflict – fragments of tiles, shotgun shells, SIM cards, plastics and tar. 

Bruce Munro, Ferryman’s Crossing 1 (2015). Photo Mark Pickthall. Originally commissioned by Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (USA).

In Perth, PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Art) will present Salote Tawale: I don’t see colour (30 July – 10 October). The gallery said: ‘The artist imagines climate change as an indiscriminate force that doesn’t see colour either.’ Tawale is the inaugural recipient of the Michela & Adrian Fini Artist Fellowship, awarded by the Sheila Foundation.

In Queensland, the long-awaited survey exhibition of Queensland-born, Sydney-based photographer William Yang will open at Queensland Art Gallery (QAGOMA) after its 2020 postponement. Seeing and Being Seen spans five decades of Yang’s photography, which capture a celebration of Australia’s LGBTQI scene and explore his own cultural identity (27 March – 22 August).

Also looking at queer aesthetics is UNSW Galleries’ Gerwyn Davies: Plush, exploring the expression of camp as an aesthetic strategy in photographic self-representation. The gallery describes Davies’ images: ‘They renew and affirm Camp’s queer critical capacities, moving beyond popular understandings of Camp as a gay sensibility, a mode of theatrical performativity, or an ironic inversion of taste.’  (13 March – 17 April).

In Canberra at the Drill Hall Gallery (ANU), curator Tony Oates takes a look at the 30-year career of Nicole Ellis with the exhibition Fabrications (19 February – 11 April). It surveys her rich and complex involvement with collage, assemblage and found materials. ‘I enjoy incidental elements,’ Ellis explains, ‘flaws, traces of human touch and gesture, and I seek out different assemblage techniques through experimentation and research.’

Ruth Maddison, Equal pay demo, Bourke Street Melbourne, 1985. Courtesy of the artist and the Centre for Contemporary Photography.

The Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne is celebrating its 35th year in 2021, and to mark it the gallery has curated a major exhibition of one of Australia’s foremost senior feminist photographers, Ruth Maddison. It focuses on Maddison’s social documentary practice from 1976 to the current day (18 February – 18 April).

And in Adelaide, Samstag Museum of Art has announced a major exhibition of the work of Soda_Jerk: Hello Dankness this year, spanning the past 17 years of their edgy political practice (dates to be announced).

Rodney Forbes, Two Sisters, 1984. Collection Gippsland Art Gallery.

Turning to the regions, Gippsland Art Gallery will present a retrospective of Rodney Forbes, mapping over four decade of his figurative narrative painting and use of flattened perspective (13 March –16 May) while Geelong Gallery has curated Blanche Tilden—ripple effect: a 25 year survey (8 May – Sunday 1 August) which will tour to UNSW Galleries later in the year. The Melbourne-based jeweller has a unique approach to her materials, in particular, glass, and her fascination with mechanical devices.

In Sydney, Tilden’s work will be shown alongside a new survey, Kirsten Coelho: The Return curated by UNSW Galleries director, Jose de Silva who says of her objects: ‘They act as allegories for ideas of convergence and transformation, reflecting porcelain’s long history of trade and exchange, as well as the movement of people and changing function of everyday objects.’ (7 May – 31 July).

Silva has also curated a Sam Smith survey, Capture, (pictured top) which brings together four moving image projects from the past decade alongside a major new commission that explores relationships between geology, technology and environment. (7 May – 31 July).

Khadim Ali installation view (detail). Image courtesy of the artist and Lahore Biennale. Showing at IMA in 2021.

A timely show, and the largest Australian solo exhibition to date by Hazara artist Khadim Ali, has been curated by Liz Nowell for the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Brisbane. It will be a touring exhibition. Invisible Border comprises sound installation, miniature painting and a monumental nine-metre-long tapestry, and explores the normalisation of war and the refugee experience (20 August – 20 November).

And following its 2020 postponement, Camille Henrot: Play Your Part will be staged by NGV International – the first Australian survey of the French-born, New York City-based contemporary artist. Featuring key works created by the artist over the past decade, it will include the immersive room-scale installation The Pale Fox (2014), a companion piece to Henrot’s award-winning film Grosse Fatigue (2013) for which she won the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale (25 June – October).


While it will be exhibitions such as the 4th Indigenous Triennial (NGA) and Tarnanthi (AGSA) – both later in the year – that will set the dialogue around contemporary First Nations practice, a mix of solo and group exhibitions will provide opportunities for audiences to connect, think and engage with our First Nations artists in 2021.

A great example is the exhibition Yhonnie Scarce: Missile Park developed by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) Melbourne in partnership with the IMA. It includes new commissions plus a survey of the past 15 years of Scarce’s work, which often references the on-going effects of colonisation on Aboriginal people. (ACCA 27 March – 14 June, and IMA 17 July – 19 September)

AGWA is rolling out the exhibition Balancing Act in late January, across its newly renovated ground floor gallery dedicated to First Nations artists. Described as, ‘Radical observations about contemporary Aboriginal experience weave in and out of stories about Country’. It’s timed with the reveal of Christopher Pease’s new rooftop artwork in April.

Carol McGregor, Wreath for Oodgeroo, 2020, possum skins, charcoal, ochre, binder medium, waxed thread. Courtesy the artist.

In Sydney, Artspace will present, djillong dumularra: Carol McGregor and Judy Watson two Brisbane-based Aboriginal Australian artists working with historical and contemporary material (16 January – 5 April), while UNSW Galleries starts the year with the exhibitions Megan Cope: Fractures & Frequencies (16 January – 17 April) and The Colour Line, Kamilaroi/Brisbane artist Archie Moore in dialogue with drawings by African American scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois (16 January – 6 March) – all part of Sydney Festival programming.

AGNSW turned to the topic of yearning, distance, time and space – and the emotional connection to Country – in the exhibition Longing for Home, through the work of six Aboriginal artists (6 March – 22 August). They are also presenting The Purple House, celebrating the Pintupi artists who led to better health services within remote communities (opening 4 September).

As part of Perth Festival, PICA will present the gathering by guest curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington (9 February – 18 April). He explains: ‘In the here and now, First Peoples and People of Colour find themselves simultaneously navigating a global health crisis and a historic moment of global awareness of systemic racism and the continued oppression of communities based on race and colour. While the gathering does not seek to document the pandemic, or the uprising of the anti-racism movement globally, it is a response to these events.’ The exhibition brings together First Nations artists from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and South Sea Islander artists.

Alongside it will be YEDI / SONGS by Noongar artist and performer Patrick William Carter – a survey laying the foundations for a multi-disciplinary practice. It tracks explorations in narrative, gesture and dance and the development of significant collaborations with filmmakers and musicians (9 February – 18 April).

In Sydney’s metropolitan fringes, Hazelhurst Gallery is celebrating Wuliwulawala (women) and the resilience and creativity of First Nations women in the Dharawal Nation of southern Sydney. (17 April – 14 June).

Another collaboration – an exhibition curated by Hannah Mathews for Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) and touring to Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney in late 2021 – will take a look at Dale Harding’s multilayered practice.

Dale Harding, Moonda and The Shame Fella 2018. Collection of the artist. Showing at MUMA in 2021.

Harding’s works in Through a Lens of Visitation give visual expression to the complex and often painful histories of discrimination enacted against Aboriginal communities, while paying particular homage to matrilineal female figures (28 April – 26 June).

And in Victoria, WILAM BIIK is the second exhibition of Yalingwa, a Government initiative and a partnership between ACCA and TarraWarra Museum of Art, designed to support the development of outstanding contemporary Indigenous art and curatorial practice. In the Woiwurrung language, Wilam Biik means Home Country. Curated by Stacie Piper (31 July – 7 November).


Over the last two decades, Geelong-born artist RONE has built an exceptional reputation for large-scale wall paintings and immersive installations that explore concepts of beauty and decay. His latest site-specific installation and first comprehensive survey will transform Geelong Gallery (27 February – 16 May).

MUMA continues to have a strong program in 2021. They kick off the year with the major project Tree Story, brings together creative practices from around the world to consider critical environmental and sustainability issues, with a foundation of Indigenous knowledge systems (6 February – 10 April).

Later in the year, MUMA takes a deep dive into sculpture with the exhibition, Connecting the World through Sculpture. (14 July – 18 September). It is part of their year-long program celebrating sixty years of the Monash University Collection.

Another university-based gallery, Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide, will present its next iteration The 2021 Adelaide// International, which views the future as an unmade shared space (26 February — 1 April).

In Tasmania, Mona – David Walsh’s iconic Museum of Old and New Art – has reopened with a complete rehang of his collection, including a swag of new works and commissions never shown before, while at the Devonport Regional Gallery, the exhibition, Home Is Where the ‘Art Is, is an initiative born out of the pandemic lockdown and restrictions. (30 January – 13 March).

Back in Victoria, continuing ACCA’s series of “Big Picture” exhibitions (inaugurated with Sovereignty in 2016–17 and followed by Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism in 2017–18) Who’s Afraid of Public Space? will open from 4 December 2021 – 20 March 2022. This major exhibition and research project will explore the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself.

At McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park – which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021 – they take a look at the work of Norma Redpath and contemporary female sculptors (20 November 2021 – 13 March 2022).

In NSW, Mosman Art Gallery (NSW) shows Upacara: The Ceremonial Art of Southeast Asia from the collection of Dr John Yu AC and Dr George Soutter AM (19 June – 29 August), taking a deep dive into our region and the role of patronage and collecting in stimulating conversations. Mosman will also partner with Manly Art Gallery & Museum and S.H Ervin Gallery again to present the next edition of Destination Sydney III, which this time looks at nine eminent Australian women artists (3 December 2021 – 20 March 2022).

Hazelhurst Gallery shows that edgy contemporary practice is not reserved for our city spaces with a pairing of the work of Christopher Langton: Colonies and Caroline Rothwell: Horizon (26 June – 5 September). Langton’s exhibition riffs on sci-fi fantasies about space colonisation, while Rothwell interrogates the relationships between humans and the natural environment with her surreal, anthropomorphic animals and plants.

And completing our list for now, Annika Kristensen has curated an edgy exhibition for PICA, Love in Bright Landscapes – taking its title from the name of a 1986 album by former, now cult, Perth band The Triffids; a group that has contributed much to the city’s narrative of wide-open roads, treeless plains and the relentless heat of a long, dry Perth summer.

This group show questions what the role of the artist is in propagating, interrogating or subverting these narratives, and how can art contribute to shaping or reflecting the character of a city, time or place (27 July – 10 October).

Please keep us abreast of your programs by emailing gfairley@artshub.com.au.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina