Vale Edmund Capon: a collective tribute

A week on, and the tributes are still flooding in for former director of AGNSW, Edmund Capon, demonstrating the impact our cultural leaders can have on society.
Vale Edmund Capon: a collective tribute

Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1978-2011) Edmund Capon AM, OBE, is pictured with a calligraphy painting from his own collection in 1999. Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter

It has been a week since the passing of former Director of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) Edmund Capon AM OBE, who died in London after a long battle with cancer. Capon was 78.

The tributes continue to flood in, demonstrating the impact our cultural leaders can have on society.

Capon was Director of AGNSW for a phenomenal 33 years, from 1978 to 2011. Even those who didn’t know him personally, somehow 'felt' they did. They could even purchase a little bit of that Capon magic, and a pair of mis-matched socks from the gallery store.


In a formal statement the gallery said: ‘Indeed, the strong base from which the Gallery operates today, and is growing from, can directly be attributed to the foundations laid during Edmund’s time as director.’

While the many obituaries that are circulating the media this week have paid honour to Capon’s incredible professional achievements, it is rather the groundswell on social media channels that perhaps better capture the spirit of Capon – and his capacity to touch so many lives.

Perhaps the most moving was a dedication written by Wayne Tunnicliffe, head curator, Australian art at AGNSW shared on the gallery’s blog.

In it Tunnicliffe quotes Capon: 'The trouble with this job is that you can’t do it half-cocked. It’s either 100 per cent or no per cent.' – May 2010.

If this photo (below) circulating this week says anything, then it was Capon’s love in taking on that role.

Edmund Capon rides a bicycle on the wall of the ancient city of Xi’an on 23 October 2010. Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images for Good Weekend.

Tunnicliffe continued in his tribute: ‘Edmund’s flair with media and his entrepreneurial skills were apparent from his first press conferences where he announced the then novel idea that he would raise money from ‘the big end of town’ to purchase art: ‘we are hoping for some millions.’ With typical whimsy, in another interview he declared his additional interests to be ‘opera, giraffes and trees, especially eucalyptus. And I am interested in current affairs, and of course, all aspects of China.’

It is these anecdotes of flair and passion that epitomise Capon:

‘The cigar-smoking Capon was as at ease in the studios of international artists such as Cy Twombly as he was chatting about his beloved Chelsea football team to the Gallery’s security staff, whom he knew by name.’  – Joyce Morgan, SMH.

 It is said that Capon had an uncanny ability to remember the names of every member of his staff.

‘Personally, I greatly appreciate and will always treasure the support Edmund extended to me after I became director in 2012. At one of our regular lunches at the end of last year he urged me to continue my work ensuring our Gallery remains a bastion of ideas and open thinking as well as a treasure house of fabulous works of art – a responsibility I look forward to honouring with Edmund firmly in my mind.’ – Michael Brand, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

‘Edmund was a brilliant balance of levitas and gravitas,’ artist Shaun Gladwell told Art Guide Australia. ‘He was the life of the party – radiating intelligence, inquisitiveness, wit, charm, style, sensitivity, passion and vision. Every time I saw him, I’d get a wickedly funny joke or three, heartfelt personal encouragement, a conversation that would often circumnavigate the world, and a big hug.’

‘Edmund's contribution to the visual arts, and to museum practice in Australia, is inestimable.’ – The Hon Mitch Fifield, Minister for the Arts.

Capon was both a scholar and a showman. He was a Mandarin-speaking expert in Chinese art and a lively and gregarious public figure, known for his fondness for giraffes and odd socks.

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich said Capon 'made the art come alive. Edmond had a unique ability to be a scholar, a showman and a leader, all in the same breath. Very few people have this gift. This is what gave him a sense of distinction ... He just had this incredible ability to draw you into his world and the world of the artist.’

‘I will miss your banter, wit, charm and cheek. No longer will you hold my elbow, ask me how my fella is, or tell me not to let the bastards get me down … What will we do without your idiosyncratic brand of larrikinism to keep Sydney’s wowsers in check? We will be much diminished without it.  You pursued quality at the expense of mediocrity and while we may not have yet outgrown our parochialism, the cultural cringe & the conceits of our politicians, you never ceased to champion the things that matter.’ – Dolla Merrillees (Instagram).

‘Edmund was one of the most outstanding leaders I have worked with in my career. He was inspirational, decisive, innovative and totally on top of all the issues relevant to the Gallery at the time. Everything he did was done with love for, and devotion to, the Gallery.’ – David Gonski, President, Board of Trustees.

Bundanon Trust wrote that Capon’s ‘legacy casts a giant shadow across the arts in Australia. He said of his friendship with Arthur Boyd: "Talking with Arthur was always the most wonderfully ambiguous experience. I don't think I ever heard him finish a sentence in the 20 years I knew him.”'

‘Edmund Capon was a stalwart of Sydney’s art world and his passion, intelligence and sharp wit is remembered by all that had the opportunity to work with him and around him. Over the past four years Edmund has been the Chair of the 4A Board and has revitalised the organisation with his contagious energy and deep understanding of Australia’s relationship with Asia …Above all Edmund was a great supporter of us all in our work endeavours and our lives at home. On every occasion he made the workplace a fun and rigorously challenging place to be.’ – 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

In later years, Capon carried a business card with his name in Mandarin, a language he could both speak and write.

‘Edmund’s energy and enthusiasm were infectious, and his willingness to embrace new ideas was a constant source of inspiration. In his 30 years as director Edmund transformed the Art Gallery into a vital part of Sydney’s cultural landscape. He was a great friend and supporter of our projects, and his presence will be greatly missed.’ – Kaldor Public Art Projects, on behalf of John Kaldor.

‘You cannot imagine anything more important and pertinent to a place like Sydney and Australia than to get involved with Asia culturally, socially and economically and to underwrite all that with a certain cultural sensitivity … His legacy infuses arts institutions across the country and around the world.’ – Esther Anatolitis, executive director, NAVA.

Artist Bill Henson wrote for The Australian: Not all bureaucrats — and he would hate to be thought of as a bureaucrat — have a capacity to communicate to a broader public, but one of Edmund Capon’s great gifts was a seemingly effortless ability to draw people into the thrall and beauty of art.

And artist Tim Storrier, also writing a tribute for The Australian, described Capon: ‘Capon had a distinctive managerial style. He dressed in a relaxed Savile Row fashion and sauntered or strolled around the gallery. He had great charm that allowed him, when combined with his academic ability, to guide successive boards to considered decisions.’

John McDonald described Capon on the occasion of his retirement in 2011: '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.'

'Edmund could be as passionate in his dislikes as he was in what he admired, though – ever sensing where the next challenge lay – he was admirably capable of changing his mind as his thinking evolved, or sometimes just for the sake of tipping everything upside down to see what the opposite would be like. From initially being unresponsive to much contemporary art beyond painting, in later years he embraced and promoted contemporary art as the key to our cultural future. Towards the end of his tenure, Edmund, along with deputy director Anne Flanagan and the Gallery Trustees, initiated what has become the Sydney Modern Project.' – Wayne Tunnicliffe, AGNSW.

Tunnicliffe further quoted Capon and his wisdoms when the Gallery was facing a potential government introduced admission charges in 1991: ‘I have proved 199 times that we make more money by letting people in free and charging them to get out – by always having paying shows, two restaurants and a book shop.’

'Edmund Capon was almost always accompanied at Society functions by his wife Joanna Capon. They were well-known together … Edmund was a larger than life figure of unique distinction who will be sadly missed by many in the Art Gallery Society.’ – Brian Ladd and Ron Ramsey for Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

'Edmund was a good friend to Australian Galleries and to me personally … He had a special relationship with arts people and that unique sympathy and understanding of them dies with him.' – Stuart Purves, Australian Galleries.

‘Unlike numerous others expressing their condolences, I didn’t know him well, although professionally our paths crossed many times… When I was Director of Hazelhurst Regional Gallery he visited and spoke frequently, always to great encouragement of the work done by regional galleries and their staff. More recently, in October 2017, we travelled together to Lismore, where he was to speak at the opening of the new regional gallery ... What I know about him is better captured by the many fond memories and achievements noted by close friends and those he directly worked with and inspired. Their memories are of a special contribution, energy and leadership that changed so much for the better in NSW’s cultural life.’ –Michael Rolfe, CEO, Museums & Galleries of NSW.

Who was Edmund Capon?

The National Portrait Gallery perhaps most clearly outlines his career accolades:

'Capon commenced his museum career at a commercial gallery in London, whilst a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Having completed an MPhil in Chinese art and archaeology (including language) from London University’s Department of Oriental and African Studies, he was appointed assistant keeper in the Far Eastern Section of Victorian and Albert Museum in 1973, in the Textile Department.

'Acknowledged as a specialist in his field, he undertook three cultural tours to China between 1974 and 1978. It was during the first of these tours in Xian that he witnessed the initial diggings which revealed the entombed warriors.

'In 1976, he was commissioned by the Australia Council and Art Exhibitions Australia to write and publish a book, Art and Archeology in China.

'He was appointed Director of the Art Gallery of NSW in November 1978 for a three year term – the first internationally-trained art historian and curator to be appointed to the role.

'During his tenure, Capon oversaw two significant building expansions, particularly regarding the Asian galleries.

'Within his first decade he more than doubled the Gallery’s annual attendance and was often criticised for his popularising of the gallery through his appearance in promotional advertisements. His major blockbuster, The Entombed Warriors (1983), broke all records, nationally, by recording over 800,000 paying attendees.

'He increased gallery admissions from 329,000 in 1978 to more than 1.3 million in 2010.

'Capon oversaw major changes at the gallery, including the opening of a new Asian galley and the contemporary galleries to house John Kaldor's $35 million collection. He also oversaw major purchases, including the $16.2 million Cezanne's Bords de la Marne in 2008 and Sidney Nolan's $5.4 million 1946 First-class Marksman in 2010, the then-most expensive Australian painting sold at auction.

'He was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1994 and received an OBE and Centenary Medal in 2003. He also received French and Italian honours for his contribution to art and culture. Capon was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of New South Wales in 2000.'

No image supplied

Gina Fairley

Friday 22 March, 2019

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
Instagram: fairleygina