Prominent Australian artist Tom Roberts had lobbied various Australian prime ministers, starting with the first, Edmund Barton. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher accepted the idea in 1910, and the following year Parliament established a bipartisan committee of six political leaders—the Historic Memorials Committee. The Committee decided that the government should collect portraits of Australian governors-general, parliamentary leaders and the principal "fathers" of federation to be painted by Australian artists. This led to the establishment of what became known as the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, which was responsible for art acquisitions until 1973. Nevertheless, the Parliamentary Library Committee also collected paintings for the Australian collections of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, including landscapes, notably the acquisition of Tom Roberts' Allegro con brio, Bourke St West in 1918. Prior to the opening of the Gallery these paintings were displayed around Parliament House, in Commonwealth offices, including diplomatic missions overseas, and State Galleries.
From 1912, the building of a permanent building to house the collection in Canberra was the major priority of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. However, this period included two World Wars and a Depression and governments always considered they had more pressing priorities, including building the initial infrastructure of Canberra and Old Parliament House in the 1920s and the rapid expansion of Canberra and the building of government offices, Lake Burley Griffin and the National Library of Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965 the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board was finally able to persuade Prime Minister Robert Menzies to take the steps necessary to establish the gallery. On 1 November 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt formally announced that the Government would construct the building.
The design of the building was complicated by the difficulty in finalising its location, which was affected by the layout of the Parliamentary Triangle. The main problem was the final site of the new Parliament House. In Canberra's original Griffin 1912 plan, Parliament House was to be built on Camp Hill, between Capital Hill and the Provisional Parliament House and a Capitol was to be built on top of Capital Hill. He envisaged the Capitol to be "either a general administration structure for popular receptions and ceremony or for housing archives and commemorating Australian Achievements". In the early 1960s, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) proposed, in accordance with the 1958 and 1964 Holford plans for the Parliamentary Triangle, that the site for the new Parliament House be moved to the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, with a vast National Place, to be built on its south side, to be surrounded by a large mass of buildings. The Gallery would be built on Capital Hill, along with other national cultural institutions.
In 1968, Colin Madigan of Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Partners won the competition for the design, even though no design could be finalised, as the final site was now in doubt. Prime Minister John Gorton stated that,
- "The Competition had as its aim not a final design for the building but rather the selection of a vigorous and imaginative architect who would then be commissioned to submit the actual design of the Gallery."
Gorton proposed to Parliament in 1968 that it endorse Holford's lakeside site for the new Parliament House, but it refused and sites at Camp Hill and Capital Hill were then investigated. As a result, the Government decided that the Gallery could not be built on Capital Hill. In 1971, the Government selected a 17-hectare (42-acre) site on the eastern side of the proposed National Place, between King Edward Terrace and for the Gallery. Even though it was now unlikely that the lakeside Parliament House would proceed, a raised National Place (to hide parking stations) surrounded by national institutions and government offices was still planned. Madigan's brief included the Gallery, a building for the High Court of Australia and the precinct around them, linking to the raised National Place at the centre of the Land Axis of the Parliamentary Triangle, which then led to the National Library on the western side.
Development of the design
Madigan's final design was based on a brief prepared by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) with input from James Johnson Sweeney and James Mollison. Sweeney was director of the Guggenheim Museum between 1952–1960 and director of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and had been appointed as a consultant to advise on issues concerning the display and storage of art. Mollison said in 1989 that "the size and form of the building had been determined between Colin Madigan and J.J. Sweeney, and the National Capital Development Commission. I was not able to alter the appearance of the interior or exterior in any way...It's a very difficult building in which to make art look more important than the space in which you put the art". The construction of the building commenced in 1973, with the unveiling of a plaque by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Construction was managed by P.D.C. Constructions under the supervision of the National Capital Development Commission and it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, during the premiership of Whitlam's successor, Malcolm Fraser. The building cost $82 million.
In 1975, the NCDC abandoned the plan for the National Place, leaving the precinct five metres above the natural ground level, without the previously proposed connections to national institutions  and next to a vast space only partially taken up by Reconciliation Place, which does not substitute for the grand mass of buildings originally envisaged.
Appointment of an acting director
The Commonwealth Art Advisory Board recommended that Laurie Thomas, a former director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and of the Queensland Art Gallery be appointed director, but the Prime Minister John Gorton took no action on this recommendation, as he apparently favoured the appointment of James Johnson Sweeney, although he was already 70.
James Mollison was exhibitions officer in the Prime Minister's Department from 1969 and the Government's failure to appoint a director of the National Gallery of Australia required Mollison to become involved in the development of the design for the building with the architects led by Colin Madigan. In November 1970, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board recommended that he should be re-designated as assistant director (development). In May 1971, following Gorton's fall from power, the Government endorsed Madigan's sketches for the building. The new Prime Minister, William McMahon announced the appointment of Mollison as acting director of the National Gallery of Australia in October 1971. Tenders for construction were called in November 1972, just before the McMahon government's defeat in the December 1972 election.
Prior to renovations, in 2004
The National Gallery building is in the late 20th-century Brutalist style. It is characterised by angular masses and raw concrete surfaces and is surrounded by a series of sculpture gardens planted with Australian native plants and trees.
The geometry of the building is based on a triangle, most obviously manifested for visitors in the coffered ceiling grids and tiles of the principal floor. Madigan said of this device that it was "the intention of the architectural concept to implant into the grammar of the design a sense of freedom so that the building could be submitted to change and variety but would always express its true purpose". This geometry flows throughout the building, and is reflected in the triangular stair towers, columns and building elements.
The building is principally constructed of reinforced bush hammered concrete, which was also originally the interior wall surface. More recently, the interior walls have been covered with painted wood, to allow for increased flexibility in the display of artworks.
The building has 23,000 m2 of floor space. The design provides space for both the display and storage of works of art and to accommodate the curatorial and support staff of the Gallery. Madigan's design is based on Sweeney's recommendation that there should be a spiral plan, with a succession of galleries to display works of art of differing sizes and to allow flexibility in the way in which they were to be exhibited.
There are three levels of galleries. On the principal floor, the galleries are large, and are used to display the Indigenous Australian and International (meaning European and American) collections. The bottom level also contains a series of large galleries, originally intended to house sculpture, but now used to display the Asian art collection. The topmost level contains a series of smaller, more intimate galleries, which are now used to display the Gallery's collection of Australian art. Sweeney had recommended that sources of natural light should not detract from the collections, and so light sources are intended to be indirect.
The High Court and National Gallery Precinct were added to the Australian National Heritage List in November 2007.
Lobby area of the National Gallery of Australia in 2005, before the major extension completed in 2010.
The Gallery has been extended twice, the first of which was the building of new temporary exhibition galleries on the eastern side of the building in 1997, to house large-scale temporary exhibitions, which was designed by Andrew Andersons of PTW Architects. This extension includes a sculptural garden, designed by McGregor Coxall Landscape Architecture and Urban Design.
There have also been proposals, during the tenure of Director Brian Kennedy, for the construction of a new "front" entrance, facing King Edward Terrace. Madigan made known his concerns about these proposals and their interference with his moral rights as the architect and also expressed concerns about these changes. A former director, Betty Churcher, was particularly critical of Madigan, and told a journalist that "the dead hand of an architect cannot stay clamped on a building forever". When Ron Radford became director, he expanded the brief to include a suite of new galleries to display the collection of indigenous art and a new Australian Garden fronting King Edward Terrace.
The Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Rod Kemp, announced on 13 December 2006 that the Australian Government would provide $92.9 million for a major building enhancement project at the National Gallery of Australia, including around $20 million for previously approved building refurbishments. The building enhancements were designed to create new arrival and entrance facilities to improve public access to the Gallery's building and significantly increase display space, particularly for the collection of Australian Indigenous art.
Stage 1 of the indigenous galleries and new entrance project was officially opened on 30 September 2010 by Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of Australia. According to well known architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly, the new extension had three main tasks: "how to dock amicably with the existing architecture; how to provide the resulting whole with a new street 'address'; how to create a logical, legible and deferential hanging space for the collection."