Tantalising People Without Intimidating Them

An interview with Edmund Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of NSW by Mark Roeder for Graphics magazine

The face is probably familiar by now.  So is the red hair, and the ruddy complexion, and that voice… that remarkably persuasive voice that, last year, urged thousands of Sydneysiders to “whatever you do, see Monet, painter of light!”  And likewise, compelled many more thousands to experience such extravaganzas as the ‘Entombed Warriors’, ‘Turner’ and the ‘Pop Art’ exhibition.

images-2Edmund Capon, former Keeper of the Asian Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and now Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, is by any standards one of the brightest, most entrepreneurial administrators to come on to the Australian art scene in recent years.

In a short time, he has somehow managed to remove much of the stodginess and elitism that surrounded the AGNSW, and transformed it into a virtual ‘people’s palace’ of art.  But more than that, he and his team have made the Gallery friendly to people who would perhaps never have even dreamed of setting foot inside an art gallery before.

Yet, talking to him, you get the feeling that his achievement was not really a struggle at all, but rather a natural outcome of his whole attitude about the way a public art gallery should be.  “I hate being intimidated by these places, like museums and galleries!” he exclaims, “And I feel the atmosphere the building breathes is terribly important.  It must be welcoming to everybody.  We want people to come and use this place… not scare them away.”

To this end, Edmund Capon has found himself deeply involved in nearly all aspects of the Gallery’s functioning, and in particular the ‘promotional’ side of things.

“When I first came here,” he says “I took the view that being a director was really a trinity of three things… administration, scholarly work and finally, what I would call the ‘impressario/promotional’ aspect.  But I have found that the job has turned out to be about 35% administration and a tremendous amount of promotional work.  Because it seemed to me that’s what the place needed – a new image.  A bit of galvanising in the public eye.”

Capon firmly believes this image is not determined by the architecture, not by what’s in the building, but by the staff who work there.  Having recognised this, he says, the way to get the right message across is not through the institution, “people don’t identify with institutions”, but through somebody who represents that institution.  Hence, his regular appearances on TV and radio shows promoting the Gallery, which, he quips, can sometimes lead to amusing situations.

“For instance, last year, there I was on prime-time television every night imploring people to see Monet… and that I would be there every day too!  But suddenly I had to go to Japan for a couple of days.  I was about to climb onto a jumbo at Sydney airport, when all the hostesses lined up and said ‘you’re not allowed on here, because you’re supposed to be at the Art Gallery every day’!”

However, long before any media exposure, says Capon, there is an enormous amount of preparation to be done in marketing an exhibition.

“Starting with the title itself… what you actually call the exhibition is extremely important,” he says.  “Take ‘The Entombed Warriors’… we could have called them ‘Diggings from Ancient such and such’… but instead, our agency in Melbourne dreamt up this marvellous title.  So jolly good in fact, it was used elsewhere around the world as the exhibition travelled.”

He also cites other effective titles as; ‘Monet – painter of light’, ‘Treasures of the Forbidden City’, and ‘Golden Summers – Masterpieces of Australian Impressionism’.

“All these titles are evocative, they catch peoples’ interest,” he says, “which brings me to another equally important facet of the Gallery’s image… the graphics themselves.”

To Capon, the term ‘graphics’ has several meanings and many connotations.  There are what he calls the ‘housekeeping graphics’ of the Gallery.  That is, all the signs, labels and notices that are used to explain works of art, or give directions.

“It’s an odd thing, that of everything to do with running a gallery, you become extraordinarily aware if these ‘housekeeping graphics’… because they really affect the atmosphere, especially if they’re tacky or badly designed.  Which is why I admire the Metropolitan Museum in New York so much… such an absolutely massive place, yet the standard of their ‘housekeeping graphics’ is truly incredible.  Everything is so clear and well laid out.  While, on the other hand, the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington is a most beautiful building on the outside, but inside it’s a bloody useless place for hanging pictures!… Certainly, nice pieces of design architecture in there, but so impractical.”

Capon adds that he thinks it’s really quite a shame that paintings in galleries have to be labelled at all.  “Because we don’t label paintings in our own houses, do we?  And when you put a label on a painting… you give it a sort of ‘institutional’ feel.  I wish I could find some way around it.”

The next stage up from ‘housekeeping graphics’ are the designs on the banners, posters, brochures and logos that announce each exhibition.  Capon says he is adamant that all this type of material is very clear and direct.

“I cannot understand these very abstract logos you see around.  They are meaningless to me.  Whether you are designing for corporations or art exhibitions, I think you must always design logos to be specific and succinct – to actually say something.”

He says this emphasis on clarity is particularly important for an art gallery.  “Because, after all there is enough abstraction inside the building.  You don’t want to confuse people by giving them intangibles outside the building.  We have to give the public something to grasp!  Tantalise them certainly, but don’t intimidate them or confuse them.”

Commenting on the AGNSW logo, Capon says it was designed by Michael Bryce, and has a sort of ‘calligraphic’ quality which he likes.  “Also, it’s just a little bit like a Chinese seal, which works quite well…”

Finally, still on the subject of graphics, Capon says there are the ‘graphic elements’ of the works of art themselves to consider.  But that is a most complex matter to even go into… they all have their graphic elements, some more than others.  “I mean, look at a single Andy Warhol painting… you could talk forever about the graphic component in that, I suppose…”

In addition to his day-to-day job of running the Art Gallery, Capon also finds time to busy himself with his hobby of giraffe collecting.  He has, over the years amassed a large number of giraffe dolls, figurines, pictures, watercolours and, of course, his now famous ‘giraffe tie’, which he frequently wears for TV interviews.

Also he manages to judge the occasional art show.  Coming up on April 29th, he, Margaret Olley and Justice Michael Kirby, will judge ‘The Law’ exhibition, sponsored by Melbourne lawyer Eve Mahlab.

Finally, for the curious, what are Edmund Capon’s four favourite paintings in the Art Gallery of NSW?

‘The Ferry’, by Phillips-Fox

‘Three Bathers’, by Kirchner

‘Kanzan & Jittoku’, by Rosetsu

and the huge Frank Stella ‘Khurasan Gate Variation II’.