Bob Edwards once asked me if I’d like to be director of a wellknown art institution. I said “No”, and have no regrets, but if I had wanted the job, I know he would have worked behind the scenes to make it a reality. He did this – discreetly – for others whom he had earmarked as good choices for particular posts. Bob was the consummate mandarin, watching and taking mental notes, asking questions – in the most innocent way – that elicited the information he needed to know. His interrogations were quiet, unobtrusive and cheerful, but, like a dedicated archaeologist, he was always digging. We went to the Melbourne Cup together, and Bob insisted we go and have a drink with Chloe at Young & Jackson’s. I realised afterwards that he was sounding me out over a beer.
Bob is rightly known for his deep connections with Aboriginal people, and his landmark directorship of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, but his contributions to the broader field of museums and galleries are just as important. Bob has the strange distinction of having exerted an immense influence on these institutions, while being almost invisible to the general public. This wasn’t due to a PR failure, or terminal shyness, it was a deliberate strategy, whereby Bob made the crucial contacts and often the important decisions, while others got the glory. Under his stewardship, Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA) quickly established itself as this country’s major international exhibitions agency, and it has remained so to this day.
In a field that seems to favour brash egotists, this approach was almost unique. Even rarer, was Bob’s genuine commitment to the common good. It was a quality recognised by a wide range of people, who saw Bob as someone they could trust and do business with. One thinks of Matisse’s grandson, Claude Duthuit, who arranged for the landmark 2011 survey of Matisse’s works on paper to be held in Brisbane, solely because of his friendship with Bob. It was a show that would have pulled crowds in Paris or London. The disappointing aspect was that many people in Australia simply didn’t recognise its importance.
Another leading figure in the museum world who acknowleged Bob’s significance was Neil MacGregor, celebrated director of the National Gallery in London, and then the Britiish Museum. With the family’s permission, I’d like to reprint an extract from Neil’s letter of condolence:
From the first time that I met Bob at supper at John and Felicity Mallett’s in London in the early 1990s to my last visit to him in the nursing home shortly before Covid, we never spent time together without many anecdotes, some very serious conversations about politics or morality, and always — always — lots of laughter. I know few people who were so able to combine high moral seriousness with the widest human sympathy, and (almost) unfailing humour. And even fewer who have at the same time transformed the cultural life of their country.
I can’t speak to what Bob did in Australia, but I can say that what he did FOR Australia in the rest of the world was enormous. Never was there a more generous host. I was Director of the National Gallery in London at the time, and I was only one of the many European or American museum directors whom Bob persuaded, by his powerful mixture of charm and persistence, first to come to Australia, then to lend to Australia, and finally to convince our other colleagues to do the same. Through AEA, and in close collaboration with Carol, he totally changed our perception of Australian museums and what their publics not only wanted, but deserved, to see. Every city (and almost every citizen) in Australia has benefited again and again from the consequences of the work they did to make it seem natural to include Australia among the stops on an international tour.
His work with and for the Aboriginal communities has long been recognised as transformative — and I am not in a position to assess the full scale of its impact. But at a purely personal level, Bob opened my eyes — and ears — to a way of studying and honouring indigenous traditions and achievements which was quite new to me. I had quite simply never heard anybody talk like that before. And when he arranged for me — a European art-historian — to go to Arnhem Land, to visit communities and to look at rock art with the experts in the field, he opened a new world for me, which shaped much of what I was later able to do at the British Museum. Among his other callings, he was an inspirational teacher, able to stimulate curiosity, to point you in the direction that let you explore things further at your own pace, and then gently to point out that you had got the wrong end of the stick..In my professional life, my debt to Bob is very great indeed.
Bob was an inveterate strategist. He planned his campaigns in search of exhibitions and quality works with the skill of a seasoned general. His greatest weapons were his charm and his instinctive sense of tact. He had to draw upon this arsenal on many occasions when his colleagues made some blunder or gaff. A good deal of his time was spent trouble-shooting, repairing the damage caused by those he was seeking to assist.
One of the notable points about Neil’s letter is his recognition of Bob’s influence – not on Australia, but on the way Australia was perceived by the rest of the world. Having spoken regularly with curators and journalists in Europe and America, I’m well aware how many of them have never been to Australia. It’s simply too far away, too distant and obscure to feature on their map of the world. As a personal aside, when I recently applied for press accreditation at the Frieze art fair in New York, I found that Australia and New Zealand did not even appear on the form I was asked to fill out. We struggle to get onto the map of international art and are quickly forgotten.
Bob directly challenged this perception with influential museum directors, convincing them that Australia was a worthy place to send major works and exhibitions. He stimulated their curiosity, brought them out on memorable trips, and showed consummate hospitality. They went home with a very different idea of this country and a new willingness to work with local insititutions. What’s most impressive is that Bob did not simply move on when he had scored a point, he kept up the contact, turning professional colleagues like Neil MacGregor into personal friends.
It’s hard to do this when you’re always busy with one project after another. It requires a massive effort that most of us are barely capable of making. For Bob it was an essential part of his role at AEA.
When I hear stories – as I do so regularly – of influential collectors and donors, or overseas visitors being ignored or poorly treated by local institutions, I think of Bob’s constant, unflinching commitment. Bob was the Talleyrand of Australian art – a legendary diplomat who made it his business to get on with everyone. I believe he owed some of his patience to his long acquaintance with the Aboriginal people, whom he admired for their wisdom. I remember speaking with an artist in Yirrkala, who told me, point blank, “We are patient people”. Bob had that same unflappable patience. He suffered fools, not gladly but as if they were children who needed to have it all explained to them one more time…
Carol Henry, who worked closely with Bob at AEA for so many years, recalls he would tell her they were like the bankers who made things happen, but chose to stay quietly in the background. It was cultural capital that AEA was providing, along with shrewd investment advice.
Bob played a crucial role in securing the most successful international exhibitions ever seen in this country, notably The Entombed Warriors (1982) and Gold of the Pharoahs (1988). Both, it should be noted, were collections of ancient artefacts – more properly shows for museums rather than art galleries, but it was the art galleries that enjoyed the attendance figures. This is worth remembering at a time when galleries have become so obsessed with contemporary art that they seem to believe the public has lost its taste for the ancient world.
This wasn’t all, of course, there was the immensely successful Australian Impressionist exhibition, Golden Summers in 1985; Claude Monet in the same year, Van Gogh in 1993, and Rembrandt in 1997, just to mention a few highlights. I’ve never written so much about a single exhibition as I did about Rembrandt – article after article – the final tally coming to about 11,000 words. Most of this was through contacts and opportunities that Bob facilitated.
It’s notable that Bob paid as much attention to the museums as he did to the galleries. When he was called upon to take over the directorship of the Victorian Museum from 1984-90, he pulled in every favour he could find, held a series of major exhibitions, opened the museum up to local interest groups and societies, and succeeded in swelling annual attendances from 300,000 to a million. On the back of this surge, he went to see the Premier, John Cain, and made his case for a new building.
As politicians will always respond positively to success, rather than tales of woe, Cain agreed. Bob got his building and left soon after to return to AEA. There’s a lesson in this story for every museum director, but very few have been capable of executing such plans so skilfully.
Talking with Carol and others about Bob, I’ve been astonished to learn about all the things he did. He was asked to devise a plan for the Hong Kong History Museum, a task he achieved so well it was decided to vastly increase the scope of the project along the lines he recommended. He was founding Chairman of the National Museum of Australia, from 1990-2000, and the main reason why the building is situated on Acton Peninsula, rather than a more distant location. He was the prime mover of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and Founding Chairman. He helped establish the art conservation facility, Art Lab, in South Australia and Western Australia. Even though he would joke that conservators were the “undertakers” who put the kibosh on so many desirable loans, he knew the importance of their role and worked with them to develop new standards – notably the methods that allowed painted wooden panels from the Medieval and Renaissance eras to travel to Australia for the first time.
In all of this, I’m merely scraping the surface, making a simple list of projects that were distinguished by their complexity, and the enormous time and effort they required. In each instance, the actual details would be worthy of a book. Bob himself is worthy of a very big book. Or a set of encyclopaedias.
We remember him for the strings he was able to pull, but also for the love and affection he inspired in every one that got to know him. If anyone manages to write his biography it will be a kind of secret history, the story of a cultural power player who devoted himself unselfishly to the greater good of his country. One had to have an innate love of people to do what Bob did, and to maintain friendships from Arnhem Land to London and Paris. One had to have a very particular sort of mind, and a steely determination to succeed. Bob was a lucid thinker and a man of huge heart. With his passing we have lost Australia’s greatest invisible cultural monument. We never saw the whole picture during his long life, but today we realise what a giant he was and mourn the loss of an irreplacable personality.
Dr. Robert Edwards AO. 7 April 1930 – 22 May 2023
St. Mary’s Anglican Church, St. Marys, Adelaide 14 June 2023