A portrait of Senator Jacinta Price almost cost the Library of NSW its CEO. Here is some background.

John Vallance was appointed State Librarian  of New South Wales in  August 2017. His mission was, in his own words to, ‘Turn the Library inside out.’   By this he meant allowing  greater access to collections, and displaying more of the institution’s  long hidden treasures. There would be many other initiatives over the next few years, ranging  from a dedicated children’s library to a rooftop cocktail bar! 🍹

The rooftop bar at the Library of NSW.

Yours truly at the Library Bar. John Vallance is seated on the left in the background.

As part of the ‘inside out’ policy there was  a decision  to  display paintings which had rarely or never been on public display.  New  galleries were  created, with the public invited to sponsor a particular work.

My partner Rob and I sponsored  the striking portrait of an Aboriginal warrior shown below. I had come across it  while researching the extended family of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. For many years the painting  had been in the possession of  Isabella Macquarie, widow of the governor’s son, Lachlan Jnr. It was ‘acquired’ in dubious circumstances by her farm manager, and sold to the Library circa 1915.

The positive changes  John Vallance was making at the Library  prompted our sponsorship. I had also been very impressed by the Library’s sensitivity to indigenous Australians. At every event there was (and still is)  an  acknowledgement of the Gadigal people,  traditional owners of the land on which the Library stands.

As Friends of the Library we receive a copy of the  quarterly magazine, Open Book. In the  2023 winter edition we were shocked to  read a piece by Vallance reviewing his six years as CEO and announcing his retirement,  to take effect in July or August. What a loss, but on a brighter note, what remarkable changes he had made.

As the weeks passed I expected an invitation to a farewell function, but nothing arrived. Nor did I hear anything about  the appointment of  a new  CEO.  Admittedly I was somewhat ‘out of the loop’. I live in the Blue Mountains and  for various reasons I hadn’t visited the library over winter. What was going on at this wonderful institution?  The spring edition of Open Book duly arrived, but with no further information.

After  some recent digging I found an article in The Guardian dated March 27 2023 explaining the circumstances behind Dr Vallance’s statement about retiring.

Portrait of Jacinta Price and artist Johannes Leak.


The portrait had been  entered in the 2021 Archibald Prize, but failed to reach the finals, which angered conservatives.  It’s worth pointing out that Artist Johannes Leak is also a controversial, right wing political cartoonist.

Indigenous members of staff in particular were  unhappy that the portrait was singled out for purchase. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price was born in Darwin and is based in Alice Springs.  One staff member told The Guardian; ‘Jacinta Price has no relevance to NSW and its history.’

As an advocate for the NO vote, Price, who is a Country Liberal  Senator for the Northern Territory, has been  a divisive and dominant figure in the lead up to the  ‘Voice to Parliament’  referendum.

The painting was purchased late in 2021, with the endorsement of  Dr Vallance and the library’s council, which is headed by former National  party member George Souris. Another member of the council is Art Reviewer Christopher Allen, a colleague of Johannes Leak at The Australian.  Commenting on the failure of the portrait to reach the finals of The Archibald, Allen accused the trustees of the NSW Art Gallery of political correctness, ‘One can only assume a work as striking as this was excluded because the Trustees were afraid of implicitly raising the real questions that need to be asked about Aboriginal communities.‘ (SOURCE – QUADRANT MAGAZINE)


In the end John Vallance stayed on as State Librarian. As far as I’m aware there has been no statement  from him about changing his mind. I can only think he was calling everyone’s bluff, and that the prospect of losing the man who has transformed the institution prompted  some sort of resolution to the staff unrest.

NOTE – The portrait of Jacinta Price is not on public display. It is available by arrangement in Special Collections.







  1. What a sad state of affairs ‘politics’ is. I saw brutal treatment by a policeman of an Aborigine on my very first visit to Perth, a man who was just sitting on a seat near the railway station and certainly not making trouble for anyone. Maybe he wasn’t ‘allowed’ to sit on a public bench? In later years I then travelled around the Broome area with family and friends in the early 2000s where we visited a remote Aborigine village. Beautiful people, but oh so poor. My social conscience has given me many sleepless nights over the decades.

    • Pauline

      I didn’t actually write it as a political piece, just about the strange situation at the Library and the retracted retirement. But yes, the situation of indigenous Australians is shameful. The referendum is today and will be defeated. The push will then be on for a formal treaty, and reparations from the British Government etc.

      • Not enough Truth has been told for either Voice or Treaty to be given a fair hearing. A pity that politics becomes mixed in not only with art but also with social justice.

        • Pauline

          I agree Kevin. But do Australians want to hear the truth? Sadly, many of my Baby Boomer generation don’t. I hold out more hope when it comes to our young people.

  2. Hi Pauline
    I think you will find that Agnes Flockhart’s sworn affadavit
    (listing the Macquarie family items in her possession) from New York to
    the Mitchell Library on 18 June 1914. Presumably the portrait arrived in
    Sydney after this date – possibly in c.1915 or later?

    • Pauline

      Thanks Robin. I will check….but I’m sure you are correct 😊

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