Edmund Capon AM OBE, the former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has died in London at the age of 78 from cancer. A revered figure in the art world, Capon’s 33-year tenure at the helm of the Gallery from 1978 to 2011 is regarded as foundational to its significance in the Australian cultural landscape.
Born in England in 1940, Capon received a Master of Philosophy degree in Chinese art and archaeology (including language) from London University’s Department of Oriental and African Studies. His long and distinguished career in the arts began when he joined the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966. Capon was appointed assistant keeper of its Far Eastern department in 1978 but left the position and country the following year with his wife Joanna to take up the role of director of the AGNSW.
During his time as director, Capon oversaw many significant changes at the Gallery, including the abolishment of admission charges. The gallery’s collection grew (from 10,500 artworks in 1978 to more than 29,000 by 2011) and so did its staff – he appointed curators of photography and Asian art, as well as the first curator of contemporary art in Australia in 1979 and the first curator of Aboriginal art in 1983. His interest in Indigenous and Asian art saw him build up both collections – he oversaw the opening of the Asian gallery in 1990 and its subsequent expansion in 2003. Capon was also responsible for the first exhibition of the terracotta warriors outside of China in 1983, a real coup and the most popular exhibition in Australia at the time, welcoming over 800,000 visitors. That same year, he helped established the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation to raise and invest money for the purchase of major art works. Under his leadership, the long-established Archibald Prize became the media event it is today, testament to his lively public persona and his ability to bring art into wider public awareness. Within the first ten years of his leadership, Capon more than doubled the Gallery’s yearly attendance.
Capon was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and received an OBE and Centenary Medal in 2002. He also received French and Italian honours for his contribution to art and culture and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of New South Wales in 2000.
“Edmund was one of the most outstanding leaders I have worked with in my career,” said David Gonski, President of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees. “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. All of us who treasure the Gallery should be deeply grateful to him. I salute him and send my deepest sympathies to Joanna and his family for his passing.”
“Edmund served our community as a tireless and enthusiastic advocate for art and artists. The continuing evolution of the Art Gallery of New South Wales under his leadership as an internationally significant art museum is testament to his spectacular success in this endeavour,” added Michael Brand, current Director of the AGNSW. “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. I extend my sympathies to Joanna at this sad time and acknowledge the wonderful contribution she also makes, both to our Gallery and to the broader community.”