What sort of director does the AGNSW need?

Published January 21, 2012
Edmund Capon in 1978

As a man walked down the aisle towards his bride-to-be, the best man whispered to him: “You are making the biggest mistake of your life.” Within a few months those words had rung true.
Is it too late to stop the Art Gallery of NSW making the same mistake?
When Edmund Capon announced last August that his long reign at the helm of the AGNSW was coming to an end, there was predictable speculation about a successor. During 33 years and many missed finales, the Trustees had ample time to consider the question of Capon’s replacement.
Rumour had it that an announcement would be made in mid-December, then late December, then first thing in the new year. As the second week of January winds to a close, we are still waiting, and the delays do not inspire confidence. If the Trustees and the Department are still trying to make up their minds, that is a cause for alarm. If they lost a first-choice candidate at the last minute, they should not automatically proceed to second-on-the-list. If they are still negotiating terms that’s also a concern. At this stage, anyone who really wanted the job should not be stringing along his or her potential employers.
I have no inside knowledge of the selection process, and like everybody else, have heard the names of several possible candidates. None of them seemed ideal, and if the talent pool is that shallow it would be far better for the AGNSW to sit tight and continue the search for the right person.
When long-term director, Philippe de Montebello announced his retirement from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in January 2008, it took eight months to appoint a successor – Tom Campbell, who had worked as a curator at the Met for thirteen years. In the same year the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum took seven months to appoint Richard Armstrong as successor to Thomas Krens. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts took an entire year to replace the late Peter C. Marzio with Met curator, Gary Tinterow, who got the job in December 2011.
On the other hand, there are countless examples of hasty decisions soon regretted. Appoint the wrong director and it can be a costly, embarrassing exercise to correct the mistake. As governments are traditionally unwilling to admit any false steps, a bad choice may linger on and on, damaging the reputation of an institution.
The Art Gallery of NSW is arguably the most important cultural asset in Sydney, with a prestige that extends both nationally and internationally. It cannot afford a dud director for the next five years.
This leads to the vital questions of what the gallery should be looking for in the next director, and what they should avoid. Should the director be an Australian, for instance? Preferably yes, because an overseas appointment would most likely see the job as a stepping stone rather than a long-term proposition. It’s also hard to imagine a foreign director taking due interest in Australian art and the important area of indigenous art.
This need not be a hard and fast rule if the candidate was really outstanding. For example, if Neil MacGregor of the British Museum decided that he wished to spend the last years of his career in Sydney, no-one could complain. Capon himself was a highly successful and committed import.
Does the director need to be a scholar? Not necessarily. Tony Ellwood, Nick Mitzevich and Ron Ramsey are not known for their scholarship or their writing, but they have proved themselves to be capable leaders in their respective roles in Brisbane, Adelaide and Newcastle. Quite simply, any genuine scholar who takes on the directorship of a gallery can kiss that interest goodbye. The job today allows almost no time for scholarly pursuits. In choosing a new director, the AGNSW should not be overly impressed by a higher degree, or a record of superficial publications.
Do we need someone as flamboyant as Edmund Capon? There may be a case for a quieter, less demonstrative management style, but Sydney has an incorrigible love of showmanship. There is no room for the shy, retiring type: the AGNSW requires an assertive personality.
Finally, a new director must not allow him or herself to be too easily led into the quagmire of managerialism or the glamorous vacuity of the contemporary art scene – both ever-present dangers at the AGNSW. The majority of visitors to the gallery still say they come to see the Australian historical collection. An effective director will have to balance all the different areas of collecting, not get side-tracked into pointless competition with the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Relations with staff will be particularly tricky. Late last year saw a succession of new appointments, resignations and forced resignations. It would have been more tactful and appropriate to wait until a new director had been appointed before such changes were instituted. There are a lot of scars that have to be healed. There is also an army of volunteers, members, donors and benefactors that need to be reassured.
Please! No micro-managers, no trendies, no snobs, no tertiary narcissists, no Machiavellian schemers. Edmund Capon had the common touch and his successor cannot afford to put on airs and graces. Respect is earned within the walls of the institution, not in the media.
A new director will be greeted with good will and hopes of success. It will be a test of character how quickly that good will is consolidated or forfeited. If there is even the slightest doubt about that character, the AGNSW should not be rushing to fill the post. Such a crucial decision should not be executed with an air of desperation. Within the year a perfect match will come along – there is no need to settle for less.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 2012