The key roles at Australia’s two largest public galleries are vacant.

With the retirement of Edmund Capon from the Art Gallery of NSW and Gerard Vaughan from the National Gallery of Victoria within weeks of each other, two of the biggest jobs in the Australian art world are open simultaneously. It’s a time of considerable excitement and transformation for the two stately institutions, which pre-date Federation.

Capon and Vaughan leave with a stellar record at their galleries. Capon has long bestrode the Sydney art world, playing an active and engaged role in championing the role of the Art Gallery of NSW in the broader life of Sydney. Vaughan, too, has been an active communicator, but will be best remembered for his efforts as a scholar and a fund-raiser, overseeing the construction and renovation of the NGV’s St Kilda Road and Federation Square galleries, even if there is some speculation that his departure might have had something to do with recent revelations in the NGV’s annual report that the gallery’s funding has been cut by the Victorian government.

Praise for both directors has been effusive. Prominent art critic John McDonald told the ABC’s Sarah Dingle that Capon’s “has been probably the most successful career of any gallery director this country has ever known”, while The Age‘s Michael Shmith describes Vauaghan as a “master planner” and “master monetarist”.

Well-known art dealer Stuart Purves agrees. Purves, the owner of Australian Galleries, says “the two of them have been the most remarkable directors of their respective galleries”.

“Edmund Capon has made his gallery one of the most personal and friendly in the country, and Gerard Vaughan has been absolutely an extraordinary achiever, he’s like a James Mollison [the former head of the National Gallery of Australia] in that Gerard came back to Australia, and he came into a gallery that was emptying out all its work and building two buildings,” he said.

“When he was overseeing the renovations in St Kilda Road and the entire new building in Federation Square, I remember he took time out of his busy schedule to walk me and Jeffrey Smart around the building site, at the time I was driving an old ute and we squeezed Jeffrey and Gerard in and drove around the corner to Gerard’s next meeting.”

Michael Fitzgerald is the managing editor of visual arts bible Art & Australia. “I guess with Edmund, he’s been around for 33 years and there’s been a lot going on with the Kaldor wing opening, it did sort of lead you to wonder when he might announce his swansong,” Fitzgerald tells Crikey. “He always wanted to do it when he was ready, he’s always been the master of his own destiny.

“With Vaughan that was more of a surprise — he’s achieved a lot, he’s had a big building program and the 150th year, so you could see it as a perfect stepping off point now.”

The twin retirements have also brought into focus the qualities that trustees and boards seek in a new director. Fitzgerald says that “each institution has its own strengths and they’ll have to play to those strengths”, pointing to the AGNSW’s strong Asian and contemporary collections, in comparison to the NGV’s rich collection of Old Masters.

But whoever steps up to become a new director, they will require stellar fund-raising abilities and what Fitzgerald describes as “bucketloads of charm”. “These days fund-raising is increasingly important, and being able to communicate. You need to be a great communicator,” Fitzgerald said.

Tim Abdallah, national head of art for Menzies Art Brands, told Crikey that for a big gallery director, fund-raising is not just the most important thing — it’s the only thing. “That’s it,” he quips dryly.

“Most of the technical aspects of the departments are run by specialists, they’re kind of nerds really, they’re meant to know which way up a picture is. A director’s role is to lead.”

Purves thinks that “it would be surprising” if more than half of a director’s time was devoted to fund-raising. “But that’s what we all do. It’s just like when we were living in caves: rain, hail or shine, you’ve got to go out and catch your animal.”

He argues that directors need “intelligence, knowledge of their gallery’s background and what it needs to do in the future, and people ability. [They need to be] fantastic with people of all walks of life, from artists to politicians.”

Programming big, blockbuster exhibitions is perhaps the other key part of the job. “You’ve got to be able to pick up the phone and ring up the guy who operates the museum in somewhere like Stockholm,” Abdallah said, “because those sort of exhibitions are the centre of gravity for the year’s program of the museum. It gets the numbers in and they can focus their programming around it.”

“That’s where the international network comes in,” said Fitzgerald. “The Picasso show, that’s Capon’s international network showing itself again. Securing those exclusive, destination-only shows has become a hallmark of Capon and also Vaughan.”

So who might be tapped to take on the roles? Top of the list for everyone that Crikey spoke to is current Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood, who has been spectacularly successful at Brisbane’s new Gallery of Modern Art. “Ellwood’s been successful wherever he’s been,” said Abdallah.

Other names mentioned included Monash University Art Museum’s Max Delany and Australian expatriate curator David Jaffe, currently at the National Gallery in London.

Whoever gets the two gigs, they are sure to be watched closely by art world insiders. “You hear all sorts of things,” Fitzgerald confirmed. “One only imagines that there going to be looking far and wide.”