It has been fun in recent years to make the occasional gentle dig at Edmund Capon, the director and chief curator of the Art Gallery of NSW. Capon is a consummate professional and an astute media player. He happily appears on television to promote gallery flagship events like the Archibald Prize or to mock himself in a faux-documentary with The Chaser. He seems to be a man like Barack Obama, one who appears to be having far too much fun in the top job.
On the other hand Capon has been away more than a few months of late, sojourning in London and Paris, jetting back into town occasionally to take care of management issues. He is also said to be the ultimate Rudd-esque micro-manager, popping up in the furthest and loneliest corners of the gallery during his strolls. But more important than any managerial quirks is the fact that the gallery has prospered and expanded under his stewardship to become one of the glittering success stories of Australia’s cultural institutions.
Since Capon arrived from London in 1978 to take up the post, the gallery has grown with the addition of galleries, cafes and restaurants, while expanding its green presence over the nearby freeway and its sculptures into the Domain.
And having only a modicum of continuing funding coming from the State Government, he has made friends with the city’s leading art benefactors, philanthropists, art-friendly corporations and international lending institutions to keep both the gallery in the black and the punters walking through the doors.
It’s just a pity his time is nearly up. At 69 he can’t have much time left before retirement beckons. The speculation is that he can go whenever he likes, perhaps within a year, or maybe he’ll work out his contract as he sorts out his legacy and his official farewell – rumoured to be a mega-exhibition. But before he goes, and we get swept up in the sentimentality of the occasion, now is as good time as any to turn our minds to what the gallery might be like under a new director.
There will be a mighty tussle for Capon’s job, with no shortage of aspirants among Australia’s gallery directors; there is also the better-than-even chance that an overseas candidate will be chosen, as is the traditional route.
What is more interesting is how the public face of the gallery would change. The gallery of the pre-Capon era is but a distant and dim memory but the impression is of a gallery far less interested in pleasing crowds and more dedicated to contemporary art.
Speaking from a self-interested position, we would love to see the gallery exhibit contemporary art more consistently and be less driven by prizes. While exhibitions like the Anne Landa Award for Nnew Media and Video are something to look forward to, more survey shows of contemporary art and exhibitions culled from permanent collections are alternatives to biennial hoopla.
Perhaps the development of the gallery’s new space for contemporary art using the multimillion-dollar gift from the art philanthropist John Kaldor will help make this a reality. We can only hope.
More important, however, is that the gallery is literally sitting on one of Sydney’s major cultural assets — an asset yet to have its potential fully exploited. That is the Domain Theatre, the gallery’s fully equipped cinema currently used for its film programs and public lectures.
Attempts to create a cinematheque in Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art came to nothing after a long and tortuous saga that was closely linked to that gallery’s ongoing funding problems. Brisbane’s newly opened Gallery of Modern Art features a state-of-the-art cinematheque that has an extensive and lovingly curated program of films that attracts art tourists from Sydney and Melbourne.
The Art Gallery of NSW’s modest film and video screening program is testament to the hard work of dedicated staff with a deep love of and commitment to cinema. It would be great to see those efforts rewarded with more resources to turn a shoestring operation into something of which Sydney could be proud.
We wish Capon well in the future and have no wish to send him off on a rail. It’s just interesting to think, while the current arrangement is fine, there are certain aspects of the old dame that might just be better off under new management.
This op ed orginally appeared here.