In 1976, despite an economic recession, a fundraising drive to establish a significant collection for the city of Rockhampton achieved a triumphant $500,000 from private donations and Federal Government funding. The fund was largely directed towards acquiring contemporary Australian art including significant paintings by artists such as Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, John Brack, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Jeffrey Smart, Sali Herman, Margaret Olley and Danila Vassilieff.
There are also significant works on paper, including prints by David Aspden, Noel Counihan, and Brett Whiteley. Since this inaugural collection development, Rockhampton Art Gallery has continued to acquire paintings and works on paper from leading Australian artists, such as Grace Cossington Smith, but also Noel McKenna, Peter Booth, William Robinson and Rick Amor. A unique element to this collection is that these artists are represented through a key work from their career, but this is also a collection that highlights the stylistic diversity in Australian modern art.
The Gallery is committed to a collecting focus on modern and contemporary Australian art. The Gold Award has contributed significantly to this aim, with Sally Gabori’s monumental painting Dibirdibi Country winning the inaugural Gold Award in 2012 and Imants Tillers's winning artwork Epiphany 2014 winning the Gold Award 2014. Recent acquisitions through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, but also gifts and purchases, have included works by Hilda Rix Nicholas, Roland Wakelin, Judy Cassab, Jon Molvig, Ben Quilty, Kate Shaw, Victoria Reichelt, Polixeni Papapetrou, Jason Benjamin, Daniel Boyd, Petrina Hicks, Lawrence Daws, Ian Smith, Euan Macleod, Del Kathryn Barton, and Ken Yonetani.