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10 Unmissable Art Exhibitions Of 2020


Each year when we’re putting together our annual guide of Unmissable Art Exhibitions, we’re reminded of the incredibly high calibre of both local and international artists on show across Australia. And 2020 is shaping up to be seriously impressive!

From 20th Century French masters to major installations from contemporary Australian artists, we’re excited to share our pick of the must-see exhibitions happening across the country this year. Get your calendars out, you won’t want to miss them!

23rd January, 2020

Henri Matisse – ‘The sorrow of the king (La tristesse du roi)’ , 1952. gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas. Courtesy of AGNSW.

Henri Matisse – ‘Blue nude II (Nu bleu II)’ 1952. Courtesy of AGNSW.

Henri Matisse – ‘Decorative figure on an ornamental ground (Figure décorative sur fond ornemental)’, 1925. Courtesy of AGNSW.

Sally Tabart
Thursday 23rd January 2020

Matisse: Life & Spirit
November 2020 – March 2021
Art Gallery of New South Wales, NSW

It’s no surprise that one of the most prestigious galleries in the country, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) will show a dynamic exhibition from one of the most famous and influential artists of all time, Henri Matisse.

Exclusive to AGNSW, Matisse: life & spirit, masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou will show over 100 works spanning six decades from the French master.

Developed alongside the Centre Pompidou in Paris, known for its unmatched collection of Matisse works, Matisse: life & spirit will be the greatest single exhibition of Matisse masterworks ever to be seen in Sydney. Yep – you’ll be able to see his famed cut-outs, but also his adventures in paintings, sculptures, and drawings, tracking the vast and varied exploration of his artistic career. This is TRULY unmissable!

Left to right: Dhuwarrwarr Marika Makassan, swords and long knives, Carlene Thompson, Kipara and Kalaya. Photo – courtesy of MAGNT.

Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA)
August 8th 2020 – January 31st 2021

Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory, NT

Now in its 36th year, the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) is a major highlight for the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin. This fantastic exhibition spotlights emerging and established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists across a varying range of mediums, and attracts more than 85,000 visitors.

This exhibition is so important for visitors to gain an insight into First Nations People’s perspective in both contemporary interpretations, as well as those steeped in generations of tradition. It also offers some prize money of up to $50,000 for winning artists, courtesy of longtime sponsor Telstra. All finalists’ work will be displayed in the world-class exhibition, opening in August.

Left: Mikala Dwyer: a shape of thought featuring The Angel; Possession; Sigil for Heaven and Earth by Mikala Dwyer, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2017. Photo – Mim Stirling. Right: Julia Robinson, Australia, 1981, Beatrice, 2019–20.

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
February 29th – June 8th 2020
Art Gallery South Australia, SA

This year the Art Gallery of South Australia welcomes the hugely popular Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art back for its 30th year. Known for its risk-taking and expansive vision, the Biennial welcomes the wild, wacky, weird and wonderful.

The theme of the 2020 iteration is Monster Theatres, inviting artists to bring to life the ‘monsters’ of today. As described by curator Leigh Robb, ‘Monsters ask us to interrogate our relationships with each other, the environment and technology. They force us to question our empathy towards differences across race, gender, sexuality and spirituality.’

Artists involved in the Biennial include Abdul Abdullah, Polly Borland, Yhonnie Scarce + many more!

Olafur Eliasson, Riverbed 2014. Photo – Natasha Harth, QAGOMA.

December 7th 2019 – April 26th 2020
Gallery of Modern Art, QLD

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art never fails to disappoint with its innovative, world-class programming – and Water is no exception! Exploring the theme of, you guessed it, Water, this exhibition explores this vital element from the perspective of artists around the world.

Here is some of what you can expect, according to GOMA:

‘Walk across a vast, rocky riverbed created by Olafur Eliasson. See animals from around the world gather together to drink from Cai Guo-Qiang’s brilliant blue waterhole. Gaze at Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s snowman frozen in Brisbane’s summer heat. Traverse a cloud of suspended gymnastic rings in a participatory artwork by William Forsythe. View the tidal currents rise and fall around Angela Tiatia. Reflect on the cultural traditions of bodies of water with Judy Watson, and on the long history of our reliance on water through Megan Cope’s re-created midden.’

Left to Right: Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay. Stanislava Pinchuk, ‘Topography : Topsoil Storage II, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone.’ Pin-holes on paper, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo – Matthew R. Stanton. Stanislava Pinchuk, ‘Topography : The Road to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant’. Pin-holes on paper,  2017. Photo – Matthew R. Stanton.


Stanislava Pinchuk
June 27th – October 4th 2020
Heide Museum of Modern Art, VIC

Stanislava Pinchuk (also known by her pseudonym, Miso) has emerged as one of Australia’s intriguing contemporary artists in the last decade. The Ukranian-born, Melbourne-based artist captures the changing topographies of war and conflict zones through data mapping, making tiny, individual pin pricks to realise these patterns – an incredibly labour-intensive and mentally and physically draining process that appears effortless, and beautiful.

This major exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne will feature a survey of Stanislava’s most powerful pinprick projects from the past five years, accompanied by terrazzo-like sculptures comprised of pieces of debris left behind in conflict zones.

Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now
May 30th – September 13th 2020
National Gallery of Australia, ACT

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) celebrates its ongoing initiative to increase representation of artists who identify as women with Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now.

Drawing on works from the National Gallery’s own collection, as well as others from across Australia, Know My Name showcases the work of lesser-known artists alongside Australian greats from different times, places and cultures.

As part of the broader Know My Name initiative, a new commission by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers will be on display at the National Gallery. Patricia Piccinini’s iconic Skywhale (2013) will also see its new counterpart, Skywhalepapa (2020) ascend over Canberra on its maiden voyage, travelling alongside Skywhale eight times during the exhibition period.


Left: Pierre Bonnard – French 1867–1947 The dining room in the country, 1913. Right: India Mahdavi (designer). Jardin d’intérieur – collection for La Manufacture de Cogolin. Images courtesy of the NGV.

Pierre Bonnard designed by India Mahdavi
June 5th – October 4th 2020
National Gallery of Victoria

While Sydney-siders enjoy the masterful works of Henri Matisse, Melbournites won’t miss out on the opportunity to experience an incredible exhibition of another beloved French painter! The exquisite works of Pierre Bonnard will be on show at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) for their major winter showcase, a kaleidoscopic exhibition of 150 works from the painter with a fondness for domestic scenes and rural life. Pierre Bonnard has been developed in partnership with Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Described by Matisse, a close friend of Bonnard’s, as ‘a great painter, for today and definitely also for the future’, this groundbreaking exhibition spans paintings, drawings, photographs, folding screens and early cinema, depicting scenes of modern 20th century France in bright, vivid colours.

Aside from the opportunity to see one of the works of this beloved painter, what makes this exhibition absolutely unmissable is the design of the show itself. Iranian Paris-based designer India Mahdavi (the interiors genius behind the iconic pink Gallery at Sketch restaurant in London) has been commissioned by the NGV to bring Bonnard’s extraordinary works to life, elegantly balancing historical references with contemporary culture in an immersive experience.

22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN
March 14th – June 8th 2020
Various locations, NSW

First held in 1973 as part of the opening celebrations of the Sydney Opera House, the Biennale of Sydney is now in its 22nd year and is one of Australia’s blockbuster contemporary art events.

Taking place across six major sites – Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and the National Art School – the Biennale of Sydney will see 94 artists from 47 countries

Under the guidance of multidisciplinary artist and this year’s Biennale Artistic Director Brook Andrew, the 12-week exhibition is titled NIRIN, meaning ‘edge’ in Brook’s mother’s Nation – the Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales. He says, ‘Optimism from chaos drives artists in NIRIN to resolve the often hidden or ignored urgency surrounding contemporary life.’

Carriageworks Commissions
Rebecca Baumann: Radiant Flux, January 8th – June 14th

Reko Rennie: REMEMBER ME, January 2020 – January 2021
Kate Mitchell: All Auras Touch, January 8th – March 1st
Daniel Boyd: Video Works, January 8th – March 1st

Australia’s largest multi-arts centre, Carriageworks, has been home to some pretty major large-scale installation commissions in its time (who could forget German artist Katherina Grosse’s otherworldly technicoloured universe in 2018?). This summer, four new site-specific commissions from leading Australian artists Rebecca Baumann, Daniel Boyd, Kate Mitchell and Reko Rennie have taken residence in the epic historical space.

Spanning over 100-metres, Rebecca Baumann’s Radiant Flux sees every glass surface of the building’s exterior covered in a film that changes colour at every angle, flooding the space with kaleidoscopic light that will never be the same twice.

A study in human energy, All Aurus Touch by Kate Mitchell captures an aura portrait for each of the 1,023 census-recognised occupations.

Video Works by Kudjala/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd features three major video installations, where gallery walls will be mapped with the artist’s otherworldly, infinite cosmos.

Interdisciplinary Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie references the massacre of First Nations people in Remember Me, a massive illuminated sign that will remain on display for the whole of 2020, the year marking the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first landfall.

Installation view of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2019 exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photo: AGNSW.

Archibald, Wynne & Sulman Prizes
May 9th – September 6th 2020
Art Gallery of New South Wales, NSW

The Archibald, Wynne & Sulman Prizes are some of the most prestigious and highly anticipated art events in the country. Since its inception in 1921, The Archibald Prize the most well-known of the three awards celebrates paintings of notable figures that reflect Australian culture across areas including art, media, entertainment, politics, sports and more. The works are always a great capsule to represent Australian culture of the moment.

Finalists for the Archibald (portrait), Wynne (landscape/scenery) and Sulman (genre/subject) are shown in an exhibition that starts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and tours at select galleries around Australia for the remainder of the year.

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email