“It’ll be a 21st century family in the sky of the mother and the father sculpture and lots of new babies that inhabit the papa whale,” he said.

An early sketch of Skywhalepapa, which is currently being fabricated.

An early sketch of Skywhalepapa, which is currently being fabricated.Credit:Patricia Piccinini

“The work could be perceived as being quite superficial but actually it’s serious about what it is to be a modern family in the 21st century using the tropes of a whale floating in the sky to add a sense of irony and humour.”

Another key element of next year’s program is Know My Name, a series of events and exhibitions giving substance to the NGA’s commitment to gender equity in its art programs.

“It may just sound politically correct, but it’s much deeper than that,” says Mitzevich, who took over his role in July last year.

“If you look at the educational, political and commercial imperatives that have been impacting on art over hundreds of years, you understand why the representation of women is low.

“But now in the 21st century, it’s not like that. More women graduate from university art schools than men, and there is a different approach now. And so we should look at history through the lens of where we sit today.

"There's a case to elevate (women's) work": Nick Mitzevich wants to throw greater support to female artists such as Patricia Piccinini at the National Gallery of Australia.

“There’s a case to elevate (women’s) work”: Nick Mitzevich wants to throw greater support to female artists such as Patricia Piccinini at the National Gallery of Australia.Credit:Sagi Biderman

“We decided to be really open and say, ‘Well, we don’t think the representation of women in our collection or our programs is sufficient, and we’re going to be quite transparent about it. And we’re going to work on it within the public arena, and we want to be scrutinised’.”

When the NGA first announced its commitment to women artists, there were criticisms from some quarters about establishing “quotas”.

In particular, Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald denounced the move as mere “ideological imperative”.

“Women make good and bad art, just like men,” he said. “It’s the role of the institution to make informed choices, not to tot up two columns.”

Mitzevich said he welcomed criticism and debate around the NGA’s policy.

“And it’s not the world according to us,” he said. “But it’s important that we have a point of view and we challenge the canons of art. I’m prepared to disagree and agree, and challenge convention, and just try to create a dynamic program for the audience to make their decision.

“I think there’s a case to elevate work. And I contend that in the 21st century you can do that without any compromise on excellence and on quality.”

Part of the Know My Name program involves a partnership with oOh! Media that will see work from 150 Australian women appearing on more than 1300 outdoor sites around the country.

That project is in turn part of a broader push to make the NGA a truly national institution that expands well beyond the walls of its building in the ACT.

“The mothership is in Canberra, but to really deliver on touching the hearts and minds of as many Australians as possible,” said Mitzevich. “We do have to think differently in this 21st century. And what I hope will define my tenure is how I share the national collection and really have a dialogue with all of Australia.”

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