This month, Ed­mund Capon marks 30 years at the helm of the Art Gallery of NSW. But, as Cor­rie Perkin dis­cov­ers, the art­ful schmoozer has no plans to re­tire

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

IF Ed­mund Capon were a paint­ing, he’d be strik­ing. How could you re­sist this bold and in­tel­li­gent can­vas? Its charm would lure you across a gallery floor. ‘‘ Some­thing very English, sort of slightly ex­pres­sion­ist in ten­dency, he’s not your fine de­tail man,’’ Uni­ver­sity of NSW art aca­demic Joanna Men­delssohn muses on the idea of man- as- art­work.

‘‘ In­cred­i­bly ex­pres­sive, with a sort of sin­u­ous move­ment and a vi­brancy,’’ Tony Ell­wood, di­rec­tor of the Queens­land Art Gallery, says.

The colours? Prob­a­bly Wedg­wood blue, like Capon’s eyes. And red, a nod to his pas­sion for Chi­nese art. Some paint­ing, you con­clude. Capon, the gallery di­rec­tor, is also daz­zling. For 30 years he has run the Art Gallery of NSW, one of the coun­try’s most sig­nif­i­cant vis­ual art in­sti­tu­tions. He has charmed dozens of politi­cians ( he is on to his sev­enth premier), rich bene­fac­tors and big- name artists such as Sid­ney Nolan and John Olsen. At an AGNSW din­ner ear­lier this month to cel­e­brate Capon’s 30- year mile­stone, 300 guests, in­clud­ing for­mer prime min­is­ter Paul Keat­ing, heard for­mer NSW premier Neville Wran de­scribe the art ex­pert he hired in 1978 as ‘‘ dap­per, witty, knowl­edge­able and un­con­de­scend­ing’’. Capon’s lack of con­de­scen­sion is the key to his gallery’s suc­cess.

Aca­demics who ab­hor stuffy, con­ser­va­tive art mu­seum en­vi­ron­ments want to work there. Vis­i­tors want to go there, es­pe­cially dur­ing high­pro­file events such as the an­nual Archibald Prize for por­trai­ture. And ri­val in­ter­state gallery staff wish they could repli­cate its en­ergy and spunk.

‘‘ We al­ways used to say when you went to the AGNSW you felt like you’d spent the day at a day spa,’’ Ell­wood says, re­call­ing cu­ra­to­rial meet­ings dur­ing his time as Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria deputy di­rec­tor.

‘‘ It has this won­der­ful, re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment, which in no way di­min­ishes the enor­mous hard work of its staff. But there’s some­thing in the char­ac­ter of the place that makes it so re­laxed.’’

‘‘ This gallery has cer­tainly flour­ished un­der Ed­mund’s guardian­ship,’’ Men­delssohn says. From day one in spring 1978, Capon was de­ter­mined to con­nect great art with the peo­ple of Syd­ney.

‘‘ I think if any­thing dis­tin­guishes ours from the other state and na­tional gal­leries it is that we have em­braced peo­ple,’’ he says.

‘‘ It is not an aloof in­sti­tu­tion. It’s easy to find the front door, which is not al­ways the case at other gal­leries. I’ve al­ways held the view that I en­joy art and I can’t un­der­stand why ev­ery­body else shouldn’t en­joy it.’’

For 30 years he has opened the vast front doors of his Vic­to­rian build­ing and let the sea breezes — and the pub­lic — flow in. The hall­marks of Capon’s ten­ure have in­cluded bold mar­ket­ing and re­tail di­vi­sions, an eye for block­busters that have pub­lic ap­peal and schol­arly rigour, some im­por­tant ac­qui­si­tions, par­tic­u­larly in con­tem­po­rary art and, per­haps his great­est legacy, the Asian art wing.

‘‘ There was one lit­tle Asian case when Ed­mund first ar­rived,’’ re­calls Ron Rad­ford, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia. ‘‘ The whole of the Asian col­lec­tion has been put to­gether by Ed­mund. He has raised the money for it, he’s ap­pointed the cu­ra­tors, he’s built the gal­leries and built the col­lec­tions. It is an ab­so­lute credit to him.’’

Un­der Capon, the AGNSW has mounted some am­bi­tious, crowd- pleas­ing ex­hi­bi­tions. The 1983 ex­hi­bi­tion En­tombed War­riors at­tracted 202,000 peo­ple, while Gold of the Pharaohs in 1988 was seen by 323,000 peo­ple. Im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tions fea­tur­ing the work of artists such as Renoir ( 1994), Cezanne ( 1999) and Car­avag­gio ( 2004), as well as lo­cal artists Nolan, Brett White­ley and Bill Hen­son, have added to the gallery’s rep­u­ta­tion and its bot­tom line.

Capon de­mands his staff ( some­times to their frus­tra­tion) play the game his way.

Three decades on, he can count many more

wins than losses. ‘‘ Ed­mund is the most won­der­ful com­bi­na­tion of scholar and show­man in the busi­ness,’’ says arts iden­tity, phi­lan­thropist and friend Car­rillo Gant­ner.

‘‘ In the 1970s this place was mori­bund,’’ re­calls the AGNSW’s gen­eral man­ager, cu­ra­to­rial ser­vices, Tony Bond.

‘‘ You felt like hav­ing a shower as soon as you walked out the door. But in 30 years it has been com­pletely trans­formed. It punches above its weight con­sis­tently and in­tel­lec­tu­ally, and Ed­mund has cer­tainly en­cour­aged that.’’

It’s the morn­ing af­ter the Capon din­ner and the view from the di­rec­tor’s of­fice tempts you like a Syd­ney travel brochure: sun­shine, the grassy Do­main, a per­sonal trainer tak­ing six clients through their sit- ups (‘‘ look at those daft peo­ple, hon­estly,’’ Capon mut­ters), and the har­bour be­yond. This is his view, his gallery and his city. But at 68, for how much longer?

‘‘ We’ve all been ask­ing that ques­tion for at least 10 years,’’ Bond, who joined the gallery in 1984, says. ‘‘ We all thought per­haps the din­ner the other night might have been it, the time for some kind of an­nounce­ment. But no, we were wrong again.’’

‘‘ I think 30 years in any job is re­mark­able,’’ Gant­ner, a co- founder of Mel­bourne’s Play­box The­atre, says. ‘‘ It wouldn’t suit me, I don’t have the stamina. But Ed­mund does.’’

Capon of­fers no clues on his re­tire­ment plans. ‘‘ How long can I do it? For­ever? Oh, I don’t know.’’ What about in 2010 when he turns 70? ‘‘ Yes, thank you for point­ing that out,’’ he says with a grin, then adds: ‘‘ I think you know when the time to do some­thing is there. You can’t turn around and say: ‘ I’ve got to fin­ish this and this’, be­cause by the time you fin­ish some­thing there’ll be other things in train. You can’t pos­si­bly plan on that ba­sis. Let me just say, ‘ I know I will go. Some time. OK?’ ’’

What has been his worst day while at the helm of the AGNSW? ‘‘ I try not to have worst days, I haven’t a clue,’’ he snaps.

No doubt last year’s theft of the small Frans van Mieris 17th- cen­tury work A Cav­a­lier ( Self­Por­trait) from the gallery’s walls would be up there? ‘‘ It was like a tonne of bricks col­laps­ing on your head,’’ he ad­mits. ‘‘ Th­ese things hap­pen, but very, very rarely, thank God. And I’m still not quite sure how I feel. We’re still be­wil­dered, to be hon­est. Ob­vi­ously the gallery was hugely em­bar­rassed about it and it was a re­minder to us we are very vul­ner­a­ble.’’

Twelve months on, the paint­ing has not been re­cov­ered. Does he suf­fer trauma from what must be ev­ery gallery di­rec­tor’s night­mare? ‘‘ Ba­si­cally, I don’t do trauma,’’ Capon says. ‘‘ But you learn from th­ese things and you keep them in mind con­stantly.’’

Capon agrees there is still a lot to do. His chief con­cern is space and the gallery’s acute lack of it. In April, the NSW Gov­ern­ment an­nounced it would spend $ 25.7 mil­lion on a new off- site stor­age fa­cil­ity, thereby free­ing up about 1000sq m for gallery space.

This new wing, due to open in 2011, will be home to the $ 35 mil­lion John Kal­dor Col­lec­tion, Aus­tralia’s most im­por­tant pri­vate col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art. But the new wing does not ad­dress the AGNSW’s long- term fu­ture. Capon’s fail­ure to se­cure fund­ing for a new build­ing or sig­nif­i­cant ex­ten­sion will mar his fi­nal years as di­rec­tor un­less he acts promptly.

In his 30th aniversary din­ner speech he point­edly re­ferred to the state Gov­ern­ment’s $ 25.7 mil­lion as ‘‘ the largest sin­gle sum in­vested in this gallery in its 110 years’’. It is pal­try com­pared with the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s re­cent $ 168 mil­lion St Kilda Road build­ing ren­o­va­tion or Bris­bane’s $ 107 mil­lion Gallery of Mod­ern Art that opened in 2006, and many guests recog­nised the sub­tle dig.

Capon and his trustees want the NSW Gov­ern­ment to com­mit to a sub­stan­tial build­ing pro­gram. If not, the AGNSW in­evitably will fall be­hind Aus­tralia’s other art mu­se­ums.

Syd­ney, he says, ‘‘ is a city that rightly has as­pi­ra­tions to be one of the world’s great cities, and any great city has in­deli­ble com­po­nents. The cul­tural com­po­nents are not only a vis­i­ble part but they’re an ab­so­lutely dy­namic part. And it’s easy to over­look it.’’

For all his wit and gen­tle hu­mour, Capon is a po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tist. ‘‘ Roads need to be built, the Opera House needs to be re­fur­bished, we know all th­ese things,’’ he says. ‘‘ But you can­not ig­nore all the di­verse limbs of a city and you’ve got to look af­ter them all.’’

The mas­ter schmoozer of pre­miers and min­is­ters must use all his charm to wres­tle fund­ing out of the state Gov­ern­ment. But af­ter a three- month sab­bat­i­cal ear­lier this year that he and his wife, Joanna, spent in Paris, and a sup­port­ive board led by busi­ness­man Steven Lowy, Capon is ready to face this im­por­tant fi­nal bat­tle.

‘‘ The chap­ter of evo­lu­tion of this par­tic­u­lar build­ing is go­ing to close shortly when we do the Kal­dor Col­lec­tion,’’ Capon says. ‘‘ I can see the next 10 years, maybe 15 years clearly. But there­after it’s an­other story, and that’s the con­cern I’m in­still­ing into the board. I’m not go­ing to be here do­ing it, but I think it would be neg­li­gent and ir­re­spon­si­ble for us to say: ‘ OK, we’ve done our bit, we can re­lax now.’ In the next decade and a half we have got to en­sure the life and the growth of this in­sti­tu­tion for the sub­se­quent five or six decades.’’

In re­cent months Capon has been work­ing hard to se­cure an­other im­por­tant ac­qui­si­tion: an 1888 paint­ing Bords de la Marne by French im­pres­sion­ist Paul Cezanne. Last week the gallery an­nounced it had bought the work from a pres­ti­gious Euro­pean col­lec­tion for $ 16.2 mil­lion, even though it has still to raise about $ 2 mil­lion from its sup­porter base.

Dozens of AGNSW sup­port­ers have pledged sub­stan­tial do­na­tions, in­clud­ing artist Mar­garet Ol­ley who has given $ 1 mil­lion, and Lowy.

At the paint­ing’s pre­sen­ta­tion to the me­dia, Capon said with char­ac­ter­is­tic the­atri­cal­ity: ‘‘ Ev­ery gold medal we won at the Olympics cost the tax­payer $ 30 mil­lion. I think this is a gold for Aus­tralian art. ‘‘ It was only such a brief glimpse,’’ Capon says, re­fer­ring to his first stroll through the AGNSW. ‘‘ But I think my re­ac­tion was that there was a fresh­ness sim­ply be­cause it was dif­fer­ent.’’

Capon was drawn to two 20th- cen­tury paint­ings in par­tic­u­lar: John Olsen’s 1960 Span­ish En­counter and ‘‘ a dark, som­bre, very in­ter­est­ing kind of work’’ by William De­lafield Cook. ‘‘ The early Aus­tralian pic­tures didn’t reg­is­ter with me at all on that first visit,’’ he re­calls. What about Abo­rig­i­nal art? ‘‘ No, ab­so­lutely not. Not at that time. There were none the NSW gallery and, what’s more, it will be go­ing up in value.’’

On the night of his an­niver­sary din­ner, Capon said of the paint­ing: ‘‘ You’ve got to have a great pic­ture by the fa­ther of mod­ern art, Cezanne.’’

Later, he tells me: ‘‘ Here we are, a great art mu­seum in a great city, the great home of mod­ern art, the great home of mod­ern Aus­tralian art, and we don’t have a paint­ing by the fa­ther of mod­ern art. It seems pretty sim­ple to me that we should have this pic­ture.’’

Capon’s love for Syd­ney is un­usual for some­one who had never been to Aus­tralia un­til he gave a brief lec­ture tour in Jan­uary 1977, one year be­fore he moved here from Lon­don.

At the time this son of a Kent paper­mill man­ager who’d put him­self through uni­ver­sity while work­ing at a com­mer­cial gallery was in charge of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum’s Chi­nese art depart­ment. He knew noth­ing about peo­ple in their teens and their 20s — and you re­alise this pic­ture is still a liv­ing, breath­ing, in­spi­ra­tional thing. Great art doesn’t die.’’

This week Capon launched his new book, High­lights From the Col­lec­tion . In his in­tro­duc­tion he pays trib­ute to the gallery’s evo­lu­tion ‘‘ that in­evitably re­flects how the city of Syd­ney has de­vel­oped: un­evenly, ec­cen­tri­cally; some­times good and dy­namic, at times de­press­ingly pas­sive and unimag­i­na­tively’’.

He adds that as an art mu­seum, ‘‘ we must be a place of ex­pe­ri­ence and in­spi­ra­tion’’.

In 30 years, Capon has achieved this mis­sion. on dis­play.’’ Back in Lon­don, Capon ‘‘ for­got all about Aus­tralia, didn’t give it a thought’’.

But his lec­tures on Asian art, his schol­arly achieve­ments in­clud­ing a de­gree in Chi­nese arche­ol­ogy and his in­nate charm had im­pressed in­flu­en­tial Syd­neysiders. A year later Capon was con­vinced by NSW gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Lon­don to ap­ply for the gallery’s di­rec­tor­ship fol­low­ing the re­tire­ment of Peter Laverty.

When he was of­fered the job, Capon was flat­tered but shaken. ‘‘ I just couldn’t get my head around it,’’ he re­calls. ‘‘ Don’t for­get, I was in the sit­u­a­tion of trav­el­ling on a very de­ter­mined and de­fined course in a big English mu­seum.’’

Capon re­mem­bers think­ing, first, ‘‘ If I don’t do some­thing like this I’ll prob­a­bly re­gret it. At times we all need to take a leap into the dark. And the sec­ond thing was, did I re­ally want to spend my time al­ways pur­su­ing my pas­sion, which was Chi­nese art? Be­cause I love ev­ery­thing in art. What is sur­pris­ing is that, not only did I even­tu­ally make that jump, but that it was for 30 years and not three years.’’

Dur­ing the jour­ney there have been of­fers to head lead­ing Aus­tralian and in­ter­na­tional art mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing a 1989 ap­proach to lead his alma mater, the V & A. But when he weighed those op­por­tu­ni­ties against his AGNSW gig, Syd­ney al­ways won. Thirty years is a long time. ‘‘ Yes,’’ Capon says, lean­ing back in his chair, his arms be­hind his head. ‘‘ It shows a cer­tain lack of imagination on my part, I think.’’

But pub­lic art gal­leries gen­er­ate a blast of en­ergy ev­ery time a new ex­hi­bi­tion opens, I ob­serve. Does this, in part, ex­plain why he’s stayed? ‘‘ That’s very true. Great works of art are al­ways con­tem­po­rary and they al­ways keep you think­ing. One of the things I love to do when I travel is to go around and see my favourite pic­tures. And if I go to Lon­don, I go to the Na­tional Gallery and look at Piero della Francesca’s Bap­tism of Christ ( 1450s) which, I think, is one of the most sub­lime pic­tures. And that pic­ture, which was painted 500 years ago, is still a mod­ern paint­ing. Its in­her­ent life and in­her­ent spirit are still as pow­er­ful and as ob­vi­ous to­day as they were when they were painted.’’

When he vis­its the paint­ing, Capon says, he watches ‘‘ Ukrainian stu­dents, Swedish back­pack­ers, Ja­panese tourists, all com­ing by —

Won­der­ful, re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment: Ed­mund Capon has wel­comed the pub­lic into the Art Gallery of NSW dur­ing his 30 years as its di­rec­tor

Im­por­tant ac­qui­si­tions: The Asian art col­lec­tion is per­haps Capon’s great­est legacy

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