Edmund Capon AM, OBE, who has steered the Art Gallery of NSW to national and international pre-eminence, is at the point of departure.

Having served as director for the past 30 years, Capon is reportedly planning to leave the gallery early in the new year.

A rabid Chelsea supporter and former chairman of Sydney FC, Capon has decided to spend the next few years lecturing, writing and traveling and making greater use of his second home in Italy.

Recruited from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum by the Wran Government in 1978, Capon has made a seminal contribution to the arts. A renowned Chinese art specialist, his crowning achievement was the addition of the Asian wing at the gallery.

During his record tenure, Capon has encouraged well known artists and the private corporate sector to contribute to the gallery’s collection and its blockbuster exhibitions to establish emphatically its worldwide reputation. He has been less successful with his Labor masters who have talked loudly about their commitment to the arts but have a history of squeezing the gallery’s funding.

Perhaps it is an urban legend, but former treasurer Michael Costa is alleged to have attended a meeting of the gallery’s blue chip board of trustees and shocked them with this parting jibe: “I hope you realise that if this place burns down we aren’t going to build another one.”

In September the gallery announced that it was making its biggest-ever acquisition — Paul Cezanne’s landscape Bords De La Marne for $16.2 million — to mark Capon’s 30th year in charge.

Artist Margaret Olley gave $1 million, the trustees and other sponsors donated several million and a large group of artists donated paintings which went under the hammer on October 27. But still short of $1.7 million, the gallery has decided to sell two paintings — Brett Whiteley’s Balmoral and John Perceval’s Pleasure Craft — at Sotheby’s in Melbourne on November 24.

The unusual dispatch of two works by local artists to fund the 1888 Cezanne masterpiece has raised eyebrows among snobs and purists who believe the Whiteley and Perceval should be kept, even if they remain unseen in storage.

The simple explanation is that purchase of the Cezanne, the first to go into the gallery’s collection, has a deadline: the sale must be done and dusted by year’s end so that Capon can make an elegant exit.

Meanwhile, the Labor Government philistines can be expected to hire highly-paid head hunters to find a successor. Candidates will almost certainly be asked: “What is your attitude towards charging entrance fees to the gallery?”

Candidates who give a positive response will move to the short list; those who oppose this Thatcherite robbery will be passed over.

Capon spent years keeping the government’s bean-counters at bay. Ironically, one of the few politicians in Macquarie Street who is dedicated to keeping the gallery free of charge is Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey