Twenty years after the Queen opened the National Gallery in Canberra on 11 October 1982, controversies continue to erupt over the building, the collection, temporary exhibitions and the directors.

The castellated design by Col Madigan was another case of form defeating function. According to the Gallery’s second director, Betty Churcher, the ground-floor galleries intimidated or compromised the art, which could not be properly lit. In the early 1990s, another Sydney architect, Andrew Andersons, replaced the “maze of movable screens”  needed because it had been difficult to attach anything to cement walls. The main spaces were not quite high enough to install a mezzanine, though two smaller areas were so redesigned. By this October, many of those improvements will be stripped back to show more concrete and less canvas, albeit with smarter lighting. The top floor has been opened up to accommodate the spaciousness of Australian landscape. Madigan protests that changes bruited for the entrance will injure the integrity of his design. So far, no one has advocated chopping down the gum trees that hide its Brutalist exterior.

When a national gallery was proposed during the first decade of Federation, the assumption was that it would display only Australian works, with emphasis on historic portraits. Following a 1966 review, the local was to be located in the context of “the Pacific Rim and the influence of European and American art”. This expanse called forth a purchasing plan from the first director, James Mollison, who envisioned tracing the whole of civilization. He would select one master painting or sculpture from each century up to the 1700s, and then one for every decade thereafter. These key works would be supported by other media.

Mollison came closest to this ambition for Russian art from the 1910s with the acquisition of Kasimir Malevich’s House under construction (1914), Ballet Russe costumes, books, ceramics, marionettes and prints, consolidated by ???????? Goncharov’s Peasants Dancing (1911).

His in-depth collecting of post-1945 US art could illustrate an undergraduate text. Meanwhile, as a victim of the fashionable idea that painting aspired to the flatness of the picture plane, he missed out on North European Romantics, German Expressionists and revolutionary Mexicans, which would have provided contexts for both Australian art and the New York School.

The Fraser government scuttled Mollison’s strategy in 1977 by refusing to purchase Georges Braque’s Grand Nu, one of the starting points of Cubism. Since then, purchases have been ad hoc around the skeleton of his grand design, with little to rival his Monets, Rodins or Brancusis.

The recent purchase of two paintings from between 1510s and 1670s underline that the early collection will always look like an auction room, never the coherent statement of Melbourne. The latest choice of a minor Eighteenth-century French portrait would have been a supporting piece for a Jacques Louis David in Mollison’s original schema. To cope with prices appreciating faster than the dollar was depreciating, the Gallery needed more of the scholarship that secured a Rubens self-portrait for $500,000. Whether the NGA needed a Rubens remains a matter for another radical rethink of direction.

One solution would be to put all the non-Australian works on permanent loan to strengthen State or regional displays. The institution would become a National Gallery of Australian Art, like the Tates in London. The NGA’s wall space is already constraining the exposition of settler Australian art expected from the collection in our national capital.

In the Aboriginal domain, Mollison had been as slow as most curators to accept that Aborigines were peddling capital-A Art, no longer only artifacts. He went on a buying spree after 1982. Aboriginal art remains a marketing point for foreign tourists, and it monopolises the most spacious of the galleries. No director would be game to say “Sorry, we are going to put the funeral poles in storage”.

Because the mass media has focused on the prices paid for foreign works, visitors are delighted to find so much Australian art. The colonial era has been enriched by permanent loans from the National Library, and by craftworks. Benefactions from Nolan, Boyd and Tucker made the 1940s and 1950s the strongest period in the twentieth century. Until now, displays of the last thirty years have been dominated by abstract and conceptual items to impress curators elsewhere. The persistence of the figurative is at last on show.

The Gallery performs a national service by lending to shows initiated around the country, and by sending exhibitions across the Commonwealth, and beyond. For instance, in mid-1994, traveling shows were in Mackay, Tamworth, Hobart and ???,  while Nolan’s Ned Kelly series went to New York.

Starting under Churcher in the 1990s, the Gallery’s own staff curated major exhibitions, notably the triumphant “Rubens and the Renaissance” for the tenth anniversary in 1992, the Turners, Surrealism, and one on the art of HIV-AIDS. Since 1997, the blockbuster program has been to throw a bone to Canberra’s tourism industry. Its highlights include a Sara Lee promotion, a diplomatic gaffe over the Book of Kells, and the fiasco of mounting the “Federation” show in a few months by a curator no longer on speaking terms with the director.

James Mollison made his way from education officer to the Directorship in 1971, retiring in 1989. Uncomfortable with academic argument, he identified a great work as one that made him swoon, and equated the design of storage boxes and the wearing of gloves when handling works on paper with “excellence”. His gift was the megalomania that any project requires to get airborne. Another legacy from brouhahas over works such as Blue Poles has been to leave more Australians astute enough to evaluate policy shifts at the Gallery.

The second director, Betty Churcher will be remembered for more than changing the institution’s name from the Australian National Gallery to the National Gallery of Australia. Under her leadership, a wing was added for the blockbusters she promoted in television spots.

Churcher has reason to fear that her major legacy will be the support she gave Dr Brian Kennedy to succeed her in 1997. No one could have anticipated that someone from a unitary political system such as Eire would need quite so long to learn that Australia was a federation. Kennedy had specialised in arts administration, not the art history or aesthetics associated with spotting hitherto unidentified Old Masters.

Kennedy’s purchases of contemporary confound artistic and financial sense. David Hockey’s A Bigger Grand Canyon has all the charm of a lime and purple carpet from a 1960s Leagues Club. Was it chosen on the principle that my Grand Canyon is bigger than your Blue Poles? Kennedy also bought a Lucien Freud that is the despair of conservators. The proof of connoisseurship would have been to discover the Hockney and the Freud of the future, not to chase lesser examples of acknowledged talents at the top of the market.

In the five years of Kennedy’s reign, the gallery has been in turmoil over its air-conditioning, the flight of senior staff and visiting exhibitions. His purchases are ridiculed by the cognoscenti rather than from the hoi polloi. One achievement has been the art of the preemptive buckle, thereby pleasing a government in thrall to the religious Right. He presented his canceling of the sacrilegious “Sensations” exhibition in 2000 as vital to keep a Chinese wall between curators and lenders. “How much do we care about museum ethics?”, he asked. Among the criticisms of “The Italians” earlier this year was the extent to which the foreigners had controlled the catalogue, the hang and the provenance.

The twentieth anniversary celebrations have been brought forward a week, after which Dr Kennedy will travel abroad. Australia’s visual arts community has been so exhausted by his regime that few dare to hope that he will be made an offer he cannot refuse.