Edmund Capon & his legacy

August 3, 2011
Photo: Nick Moir, SMH
Photo: Nick Moir, SMH

This won’t be the first or last time that someone declares Edmund Capon a hard act to follow. In his thirty-one years as director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Capon has taken a provincial, down-at-heel institution and turned it into a Grade-A showcase for Australian and international art. Yet he leaves at time when the gallery is at a crossroads, its popularity in the balance. There is even a feeling that, like John Howard or Ricky Ponting, he may have held on a little too long.

Capon’s great love has always been China, and he has presided over many of the most important exhibitions of Asian art to be seen in this country, from the Entombed Warriors of 1983 to The First Emperor, last year. Along the way there have been impressive shows of Old and Modern Masters, Aboriginal and contemporary art, and a series of extraordinary drawing surveys.

With his flamboyance and irreverence, Capon has found it easy to acquire friends and enemies. He possessed a common touch that endeared him to his staff, although not always to the curators. A Londoner by birth, his cheek and bravado made him a natural fit in Australia. He could be charming or vulgar, engaging or frustrating as the mood took him. When a problem arose he would resort to the most supercilious responses, breezing over the black holes that claimed lesser mortals.

It was never plain sailing, but Capon’s commitment to the gallery and his capacity for hard work could not be denied. He befriended, cajoled and abused the politicians in an effort to secure necessary funds. He was tireless in his attentions to benefactors such as Margaret Olley, and latterly, John Kaldor. He was touchy about criticism, but always gave the impression of being Teflon-coated. He courted controversy, but was wary of letting any fires get out of control.

It is hard to imagine the AGNSW without Capon, and it will be miraculous if his successor does not prove to be an anticlimax. Despite his taste for mischief, when someone does a detailed audit of his career the positives will massively outweigh the negatives. Indeed, Edmund Capon will go down in history as the most successful director of a public gallery that Australia has ever seen.

Now that he has finally signed off, he can write the memoir for which we’ve all been waiting.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 3, 2011