BIG PICTURE MAN
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
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