Although 18th century icons such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Boyd play a starring role in the National Gallery of Australia’s fabled Australian art collection, the institution shows a surprisingly narrow focus on contemporary art. That’s why NGA Contemporary, a space devoted to showcasing the artists shaping the culture in the 21st century - located on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin - feels like such a relief.

“Our collection features some of the most significant contemporary art in the country and because we hadn’t had any major building in the 80s, we haven’t had the chance to show it,” says Simon Elliot, the National Gallery’s assistant director. “The National Capital Authority gave us the opportunity to take some art out of the storeroom and outside the building so that more Canberrans and Australians will get the chance to see the collection. But we also hope that it will strengthen our aspirations to have more space at the National Gallery.”

Elliot, who says that NGA Contemporary will hold four exhibitions a year, believes that the temporary space offers audiences a powerful introductory lesson to the breadth and depth of contemporary Australian art. He also adds that the first show, which features iconic works by the likes of Bill Henson, Mike Parr, Patricia Piccinini and Ron Meuck, is the first time the leading lights of Australian contemporary art scene have been shown together in the same place.

“Everything in the show had been made by artists, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, from every state and territory,” he explains. “We have sculptures, photographs, paintings and videos. Some of the highlights include Ron Meuck’s Pregnant woman 2002 and Skywhale, which was made by Melbourne-based artist Patrici Piccinini for the Centenary of Canberra and caused many discussions. We also have some very deep and dark works by Dale Frank and Mike Parr as well as pieces by local artist eX de Medici, who makes some very delicate pieces involving guns and moth wings. The first show is really a degustation, a tasting menu. It’s really a feast for the eyes and a way to showcase the talented men and women who are producing intricate metalwork, crazy sculptures and everything in between.”

NGA Contemporary will be open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Free entry.

nga.gov.au/Contemporary