Footballer, 1946

Sidney Nolan, Footballer, 1946, enamel paint on composition board, 121.9 × 91.4 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with the assistance of the Government of Victoria, Foster's Group Limited, and through the NGV Foundation, 2002. © Sidney Nolan Trust

Gerard Vaughan is Director at National Gallery of Australia.

“Sidney Nolan played a central role in the collecting and curatorial life of the NGV in the first decade of the 21st century following its redevelopment and the opening in 2002 of a new building in Federation Square in central Melbourne, exclusively dedicated to Australian art. The new Ian Potter Centre hosted two major Nolan exhibitions in fairly quick succession, Desert and Drought in 2003, and a major retrospective in 2008, undertaken in partnership with the AGNSW.

When Footballer was offered to the NGV in 2002 it was obvious that we had to acquire this icon of Melbourne sport, completed in August 1946. The debate continues as to whether it is a purely generic image, or references a particular St Kilda footy star. Journalists speculated it was Keith Miller, a famous full back, but in his catalogue of 2007, Barry Pearce quotes Nolan saying it was another player, Bill Mohr. The price of $500,000 seemed a lot, and money was short because of the redevelopment. At last Fosters generously agreed to put up half the cost, and we turned to the government to help with the rest. Premier Steve Bracks was sympathetic, but his PR people imposed a condition - that we get the Premier on to The Footy Show to present it to the Gallery live on air, then the most popular sports show on Australian TV with considerably more than a million viewers. Host Eddie Maguire agreed, and the event was set up. The Footy Show was, and remains, famous for horsing around. I managed to discover that some of their writers were planning a big joke - that they would secretly have a copy made, and when the Premier unveiled it, it would suffer a terrible accident, after which the ‘real’ Footballer would be revealed.

Fortunately, we saw that one off, but the event was a big success, and the whole community was talking about Nolan’s Footballer.
Shortly after, we announced an open day for the public to visit our just-completed new building in Federation Square, before the collections were installed. We then announced that we would hang just one picture, Footballer, in a space facing across to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Nolan had the entire building to himself - and hundreds of thousands turned up over the weekend.

A few years later, in 2006, we acquired The Temptation of St Anthony, 1952, from Jinx Nolan, for which we paid $800,000, evincing severe criticism from the press, as no Nolan could be worth that much, but the inexorable rise of the market had begun. In 2010 the Government of Victoria provided $2.2 million for the acquisition of Kelly with Horse, 1955 (which I always liked to describe as ‘Kelly with attitude’), as the State’s special gift for the celebration of the NGV’s 150th anniversary the next year, 2011, with which we launched a new fundraising campaign for acquisitions. This time there was no press criticism about the price, as in March that year the AGNSW had paid $5.4 million at auction for Nolan’s First Class Marksman, sold by Steve Vizard, which still holds the record for an Australian picture sold at auction.
So, in every sense, it was Nolan’s decade in his home town.”

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