Vale James Mollison

For those of us who grew up in the post-war culture, who lived among adults formed in the early twentieth century, who as children went to the theatre and art galleries and read contemporary Australian writing and mixed with artists and writers and actors, the changes of the 1950s and ‘60s were not tsunamis, but constant waves of interest, of revelation: some powerful and noisy, some gentle, all changing the culture over time. James Mollison, who was born in 1931, and died on 19 January, lived through those times, had swum in those waves. He then, from the 1970s, made an extraordinary contribution of his own to Australian culture.

James was amused at suggestions that he somehow single-handedly built the National Collection. Amused, and perhaps a little irritated. He was very conscious of the history from which he grew and the many people from whom he learned about art, about administration, about management. He always paid tribute to these teachers and mentors: from the remarkable team put together by Daryl Lindsay at the National Gallery of Victoria, the members of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, to the public servants with whom he worked from 1968 and, ultimately, as Director of the new National Gallery of Australia. The Board, established in 1912, had been collecting for the national collection since that time, and had the running of international exhibitions, and was commissioning and buying work for Commonwealth offices and institutions: effectively it managed the national image. By the time Mollison was appointed, Lindsay was Chair, Robert Campbell, William ‘Bill’ Dargie, Russell ‘Tas’ Drysdale, and Douglas Pratt, the other members.

Daryl Lindsay, himself an innovative Director who taught Melburnians about Modernism, insisted James apply to become the Board’s exhibition officer. James had been education officer at the NGV, then worked in the commercial gallery system at Max Hutchison’s avant-garde Gallery A in Melbourne in 1964-1965, and had returned to the public sector as Director of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 1967. He was a reluctant candidate for a position which meant living in the then very provincial national capital. When Ann Gray interviewed him for Pauline Green’s Building the Gallery, he told the funny story of how, explaining the elements that would make the move tolerable, he effectively set his own terms for the job.  His requirements included a program of travel, a way constantly to mix in the Australian artworld, and this meant he was able to engage deeply with artists, public institutions, commercial galleries, and collectors, across the nation.

Throughout the century the CAAB had carefully managed the politics of the artworld and worked closely with politicians, so that in a time of very formal bureaucracy they were able to negotiate such a package with the employee they wanted. These Board members had been appointed by Robert Menzies, who had gradually increased the acquisitions budget, and (an enthusiast who trusted artists) had delegated his purchasing powers to them. All the subsequent Prime Ministers, during the building of the gallery, maintained what was the largest budget internationally (the Getty had not begun to buy). This gave Mollison and the Board, and subsequently the acquisitions Committee, an edge with collectors and dealers the world over.

Mollison, looking through the State galleries’ holdings, had seen that these were of what he called ‘establishment’ figures in Australian art. He sought to deepen and differentiate the national collection (which held a number of works by such figures) by collecting the work of modern Australian artists. The Board supported this initiative, and came to trust his judgement; and they agreed, effectively, to learn from him about the contemporary art of the period:

Some few months into the job I was thrown, because the Board asked me to gather together a collection of, say, twenty-five really contemporary works for them to look at. I showed them contemporary art as it was available at that moment in Sydney. And they couldn’t look at it. What they were thinking of as contemporary were works by Boyd, Nolan, Tucker and Williams. To me, these were established artists –contemporary is something new, something about which I don’t already know very much. At the end of the day, the Board said, ‘there are twenty-five things here. Let Mr Mollison make up his mind which ten he’ll keep.’

‘Mr Mollison’ was able to acquire pictures from artists across the country. Ken Whisson remarked that no curator had visited his studio for years, and then Mollison arrived. His friendships with artists and collectors locally meant people looked to the national collection to donate even before there was a building where those donations could be shown. His curiosity and international connections brought us, for example, the collection of Ballet Russes costumes, and the Ken Tyler print collection. He was blind to prejudice, and the gallery has the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Agnes Martin, and Robert Motherwell.

James was not only a link between the ‘establishment’ artworld and the artists of the 1970s, he continued to engage with new artists on the scene, and to work with and learn from many artists who were officials and administrators, including James Gleeson, Leonard French, Clifford Last and Fred Williams, and figures such as John Bunting, head of the Prime Minister’s Department, who were public servants in the most civilised sense of that phrase. He persuaded the acquisitions Committee to expand the collection to include major international art; thereby ensuring the institution an international reputation.

As acting Director of the new National Gallery, he needed to recruit staff, and his network of contacts allowed him to collect a group of intelligent lively people with whom to run the institution. Like James, not all had formal training in Fine Arts: the first Australian Department of Fine Arts was established in 1954, its first graduates emerging some years later. It was usual then to find gallery officials who had trained as artists or had found their way into the field by some other route. While training as a teacher James had continually visited the NGV, where Ursula Hoff and Lindsay taught him to examine works of art and think about them in their context. He absorbed administration and management skills by being alert to the nuances of behaviour of his mentors, and his teacher training gave him a structure to encourage his curators to be curious, independent, and meticulous.

When later I opened my own gallery showing emerging artists, Bert Tucker suggested James drop in. James had a fund to buy work from ‘unknown’ artists, and it was such fun zooming about from studio to studio; his directness, from years of dealing with artists, and his confidence (which reflected his teacher training and an absolute desire to communicate) always put artists at ease. This confidence was all the more remarkable because when he was young it was illegal to behave as a homosexual; there were men who covered up their nature, who married women; it was a dangerous time. With James there was never any sense of fear; and when in 1989 he returned to Melbourne to the Directorship of the NGV where he’d first been welcomed, he was able to settle down with his long-term partner, Vincent Langford, who survives him, and with whom many mourn.

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