• News
  • Nov 14, 2011

New Direction for Australia's State Galleries

The Art Gallery of New South Wales

The unexpected resignation in September of Dr. Gerard Vaughan, director of Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), and the long-anticipated resignation one month earlier of Edmund Capon, director of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), followed by numerous shifts in staff at that institution, presents the opportunity for generational change at two of Australia’s leading public art galleries.

However, although applications for both jobs have recently closed, there remains little indication of who possible successors might be. Meanwhile, Capon will remain at the Sydney institution he has led for 33 years until December 23, and Vaughan will stay on at the NGV until next July.

Vaughan’s announcement was especially surprising as the 53-year-old has served just three years of his five-year term. In the NGV annual report published just a few days after his announcement Vaughan pessimistically foreshadowed what he described as “confirmed reductions in the Government’s annual operating grant, and ongoing economic pressures,” adding that “as a result, the scope of our activities may need to be reduced.” This was in stark contrast to his comments on Australia’s ABC television in May during celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne gallery, when he said, “I’m very pleased with where we are and there are some big plans for the future.” Meanwhile, the Victorian government has vehemently denied any cuts to the gallery’s operational grant, and Vaughan refuses to comment on speculation that the threat of reduced funding played a part in his decision to leave. The extraordinary timing of the announcements pitches Australia’s top two public art galleries against one another in their search for directors.

While trustees at both institutions review CVs over the next few weeks, the situation at the AGNSW remains particularly uncertain with several senior curators turning in resignations in recent weeks, presenting the incoming director with what many perceive as a real opportunity to work with a clean slate.

The gallery’s head of Australian art, Barry Pearce, recently retired after 33 years; while Jackie Menzies, head of Asian Art and a gallery veteran of 35 years, recently declared her resignation, only to defer that decision within a matter of days. An AGNSW spokesperson stated that Terence Maloon, the curator of major international exhibitions for over 20 years, had withdrawn his resignation: “Maloon’s departure was reported but the official position is that he is no longer going.” However, outgoing director Capon candidly admitted to AAP, “Terence’s position. . . has been the subject of much discussion in recent months as we looked to the future creation and management of such shows, and as a result of those deliberations that position has been deleted.”

It is understood that Tony Bond, another veteran of the AGNSW, having joined in 1984 and now Assistant Director of Curatorial Services, while committed to helping the new director settle in will himself leave in 2013 or earlier.

The AGNSW has also lost younger blood during this current period of uncertainty. Hetti Perkins, the respected senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art for 13 years, peremptorily resigned at the end of September because of what she argues is the sidelining of Indigenous art at the gallery. Speaking to AAP Dr Gene Sherman, of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation said, “Losing Hetti is a big blow for the gallery as the pool of available talent to replace her is so small.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Alexandra Green, the curator of South and South East Asian Art who had joined the AGNSW from the University of Hong Kong, has resigned after only one year in the job. She leaves on December 16 to take up a new position at London’s British Museum and declined to comment, saying staff had been specifically advised not to speak about the spate of resignations.

Replacing the charismatic outgoing Capon would alone be hard enough for any incoming director, and having to build a new team of senior executives from scratch will either add to their difficulties or present a remarkable opportunity to refashion the AGNSW. Either way it remains a formidable task.

Edmund Capon, when asked what he might do once he left the gallery, smiled mischievously and said, “I might drive a taxi.” He added: “For 33 years [AGNSW] has totally dominated my life, so finally a slice of time for me to indulge—but sailing, golf, boating are definitely not on. Relaxing is the most overrated pastime in my view… Lots of things in view for 2012."

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