Edmund Capon 1940-2019

Edmund Capon, who has died in London at the age of 78, made an outstanding contribution to the cultural life of Australia.

In his 33 years as director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he never wavered in his commitment to the core mission of a public gallery: to make great art accessible to the people.

Appointed by Premier Neville Wran, Capon arrived in Sydney with his wife Joanna in 1978. One of his first acts as director was to remove the turnstiles at the Gallery and make entry free to everyone. He fought to keep it that way, resisting an attempt by the Greiner government in 1991 to introduce entrance fees. For many supporters of the Gallery, not least its army of dedicated volunteers, that was the principal reason they gave years of service to the institution.

He went on to build a first-class body of curators, a highly professional conservation department, an outstanding educational department and a fine library.

In the 1980s his exhibitions of the Terracotta Warriors and of Monet had people queuing along Art Gallery Road to get in. As his curatorial departments developed, in the 1990s and early 2000s a series of original exhibitions raised the level still further. They included in Asian art, Jackie Menzies’ ground-breaking Buddha and Goddess; in Aboriginal art, Hetti Perkins’ Papunya Tula; in Australian art, Barry Pearce’s Sidney Nolan; in European art, a series of exhibitions by Terence Maloon including Michelangelo to Matisse and Cézanne.

Edmund Capon’s infectious enthusiasm energised every section of the Gallery staff and supporters. He was tireless in his efforts to build its Foundation, and fully supported the independence of the Art Gallery Society as a means of channelling community support.

His fund-raising from that extensive network was focused entirely on building the collection, which remains his great legacy to the people of NSW. “The entire value and pertinence and sustaining quality of the institution relies on its fundamental product which is art,” he told me when I spoke to him at his Bellevue Hill home in 2016.

He was passionate about enabling people to look at art. “Art is about contemplation, not activity,” he said. He loved to see children from schools across the state come in to the Gallery, with free and equal access.

“You don’t have to turn great art into a children’s product in order to engage children with great art. I’ve watched schoolchildren, my grandchildren, sit in front of an altarpiece. There’s no trivialising: they’re looking at something that’s been around for 400 or 500 years. They’re looking with their eyes, but they’re seeing the humanity that’s in there. I don’t think you have to change the art to make it accessible. You have to change the attitude of the people.”

Few people in the Australian art world have done so much as he to change attitudes and to raise the cultural level of our society. He is greatly missed.