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The folie begins as Versailles hits Canberra

Emma Macdonald

It is glorious, and it is now ready for viewing! Versailles: Treasures from the Palace has been launched at the National Gallery of Australia.

“Canberra’s changed,” declared Australian music royalty Tina Arena.

Indeed, our own Chief Minister Andrew Barr agrees that just 10 years ago, the territory may not have had enough cultural credibility to secure an exhibition of such extraordinary clout as Versailles: Treasures of the Palace.

But on Thursday, after years of preparation, diplomatic negotiations and logistical calculations, the NGA officially unveiled the long-awaited collection of more than 130 artworks and artefacts from one of the world’s most opulent palaces. It is open to the public from tomorrow.

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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Beatrix Saule, Director of the National Museum of Versailles, Gerard Vaughan, NGA Director, Catherine Pégard, President of the Palace of Versailles and Tina Arena who is the exhibition’s ambassador.

It is the first time such a collection has been permitted to leave Versailles, with President of Versailles Catherine Pégard, expressing both relief and delight to see her priceless art works safely ensconced in the purpose-built gallery space where they will remain until April 17.

“Yes I am always a little anxious in the beginning but I relax as the exhibition goes on,” she said.

The former French political journalist said it was fitting that exhibition brings an experience of the former seat of power of France during the reigns of King Louis XIV, XV and XV to Canberra – the current seat of the Australian government.

“These treasures have travelled far to make this ground-breaking exhibition accessible to all Australians and we are very proud to be launching this exhibition with the NGA,” she said.

She praised Gallery Director Gerard Vaughan for his vision and the professionalism of his team in creating such a display and hinted that while Canberra was the first place such a treasure trove would be displayed, it might not be the last.

“Perhaps we may allow it to go elsewhere, but you are the first.”

Meanwhile, the Chief Minister said that the exhibition would bring hundreds of thousands of visitors, and millions of dollars of tourism dollars to the ACT.

“There may be as much as a 100-to-one return on investment, so at $500,000 we are looking at up to $50 million.

Canberra will be marketed aggressively to the other states, with the new Tigerair flights meaning a big contingent of Melbournians will likely come.

As many as one in four Canberrans is expected to visit the NGA to take their fill of priceless objects including paintings, tapestries, sculptures, furniture and the magnificent 1.5-tonne fountain sculpture of Latona and her children.

The statue is set against an incredible multi-media screen of the fountain water, creating an immersion into the grounds of Versailles.

“I never imagined the exhibition would be so breathtaking,” said Tina. “It truly is a feast for the senses. I am honoured to be a part of it.”

Tina was chosen to represent the French and Australian collaboration as her musical success spans the two countries.

She was inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame last year but has spent the last 17 years living in France where she has recorded three albums. In 2011 she was awarded France’s Ordre National du Merite (National Order of Merit) for her cultural contribution.

Describing herself as “a citizen of the world” Tina said she was truly delighted to see Australia and France come together over the project.

She has not only visited Versailles on numerous occasions but sang there in 2005 as part of the Live 8 anti-poverty campaign.

“This is an extraordinary collaboration from an extraordinary bunch of people.”

“It really is an incredible experience, so I can only say to everyone to come and see it for themselves.”

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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