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Aug 03 2011

Exit, Edmund Capon: Controversial Head of Sydney’s Top Gallery Retires

by Michael Young

Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Edmund Capon AM OBE, the director of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) today (August 3, 2011) announced his retirement—effective from the end of this year—from the position he has occupied for the last 33 years.

After struggling through a media throng, more in keeping with a Hollywood Oscar ceremony, and flanked by New South Wales’ Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and the president of the Board of Trustees of the gallery, Steven Lowy, the loquacious Capon said, “I don’t want to say anything, but I will.”

The retirement had been a long time coming with speculation mounting to fever pitch in Sydney as to when the 71-year-old Capon would finally hang up his curator’s mantle in favor of what many presume will be an Emeritus academic life (he is a respected Chinese scholar). Some in the tight-knit Sydney art world believed Capon had overstayed his welcome and was in danger of destabilizing the gallery.

The announcement was made in front of one of Capon’s favorite paintings, Cy Twombly’s Temeraire (1998-99) bought by the gallery in 2004 by a coalition of benefactors and the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation established by Capon in 1983 to raise and invest money for the purchase of major art works.

Steven Lowy heaped praise upon Capon as some one, “who had made an immense contribution to the cultural life of Australia, New South Wales and Sydney,” a sentiment that was echoed by Premier O’Farrell.

“The 33 years had been a period of enlightenment and renaissance under Edmund,” O’Farrell declared. “He is,” the Premier continued, “as iconic as the gallery itself. He has been both the public face of the Art Gallery and a major behind-the-scenes driving force for its improvement and development.”

Over the years there have been many Capon detractors, but he has never been one to duck a fight as was on show today when one irate member of the public berated Capon on spending AUD 16.1 million on purchasing, in 2008, Banks of the Marne (1888), what has been described by some as a substandard Cezanne. Capon, having spent many days over the years on the terraces of his beloved English soccer team, Chelsea, where repartee tends to be colorful, remained unfazed.

As irreverent and politically incorrect as Capon could be, he was seldom irascible and maintained a charming man-of-the-people politeness among staff and the public at large, as testified by the number of teary eyes today among females colleagues.

Capon has served as the director of the AGNSW ever since 1978 when he was plucked from relative obscurity from a position in London’s Far Eastern Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“I didn’t realize that the then Premier of New South Wales only bought [me] a one way ticket,” he said.

Capon’s first egalitarian action when he arrived was to remove the turnstiles at the entrance to the gallery. “A powerful symbol of what he stands for,” said Lowy.

The 300,000 visitors annually in 1978 have grown to a staggering 1.3 million even given the rise in population numbers, as Capon has transformed what was a parochial gallery into a world-class cultural institution.

Capon likes big finishes and “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso” will be just that when it opens in November this year, capping off a hectic 18 months that has seen the fabulously successful “First Emperor: China’s entombed warriors” exhibition and the establishment of the new Contemporary Art wing home to the $35 million worth of contemporary art, a gift from the legendary patron of art, John Kaldor.

Speaking exclusively to ArtAsiaPacific after the announcement, Steven Lowy said the search for Capon’s successor would be both national and international in scope. However the buzz in the room was that Tony Ellwood, currently serving out the final year of his five-year contract as director of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane may have already been tapped on the shoulder to move south.

“If true it would be a great loss for Queensland but wonderful here,” reflected Dr. Gene Sherman, executive director of Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.

Capon speaking to AAP on his legacy said, “I want everybody who comes here, to come back.”

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