The founding director of the National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, has died at the age of 88. Mollison was acting director of the gallery from 1971 until 1977, when he was appointed as the NGA’s Director, a position he held until 1990.

James Mollison AO and Robert Hughes AO with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles © Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency

Mollison was perhaps most famous for the then controversial acquiring of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist painting Blue Poles for $1.3 million, a world record price for a work by a contemporary American artist. The decision has since been acclaimed as visionary, with the painting’s value now thought to be about $350 million, and the work considered an iconic piece of 20th-century art and one of the gallery’s most important works.

“It is with deep sadness that we note the passing of one of Australia’s greatest museum directors,” the NGA said in a statement on Facebook. “During twenty years at the helm, he showed us how bold risk taking could build an unrivalled world class art collection. In bringing together so many influential and extraordinary works, he wanted visitors to experience art history and leave knowing much more about art than when they first arrived.”

“By inspiring and provoking Australians with everything from Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, he invited us to think and talk about art. This pioneering spirit together with his courage is what we carry into the future. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time.”

Following his tenure at the NGA, Mollison was Director of the National Gallery of Victoria until 1995. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1984 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1992.

James Mollison AO and former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles © Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency

“His fearless risk taking inspired an entire country to talk about art,” National Gallery Director Nick Mitzevich said. “His impact was much wider than just art circles, wider than just galleries. He had an impact on the debate about art and culture in Australia.”

“The artistic legacy of the national collection owes him a great debt,” said Mitzevich. “He was collecting history as it was being made.”

“Many remember him for Blue Poles but his legacy is so much greater – that work was emblematic of his foresight and the courage that he displayed over two decades of developing a truly great national collection for the people of Australia.”