James Mollison was a great and fortunate art museum Director. His tenure at the National Gallery of Australia from 1971, when he was appointed Acting Director, coincided with the Whitlam Governments, with Whitlam himself as Minister for the Arts.
Mollison enjoyed the PM’s confidence and with that updraft behind him, he could make such bold acquisitions as Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles ($1.3m) and Willem de Kooning’s Woman V ($650,000). In those palmy days, the Australian dollar outshone the Yankee one. The price tag for the Pollock was US$2m and US$1m for the de Kooning. Whitlam and Mollison shared a vision of creating a great national gallery on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Both had the courage necessary for such convictions, for the rage, political and popular, these and other acquisitions aroused was horrific to behold—Australian philistinism unleashed.
Mollison‘s vision for the National Gallery, however, went beyond a parade of masterpieces. He had done his time in the trenches of Australian art museums, starting out as an Education Officer in the NGV 1960-61. Later he became Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat. An avid museum-goer, he knew Australian public galleries intimately, state and regional. Like everybody else of his generation and younger, he looked around and was appalled by the poverty of the modern collections, except for modern British painting. In 1960 a single Picasso hung on the walls of all Australian public galleries: the Queensland Art Gallery’s incomparable La Belle Hollandaise.
When the opportunity arose to create a great modern collection, Mollison seized it with both hands. What makes Mollison’s tenure at the NGA so exceptional was the level of his ambition. He went for key works in the modern movement. Who in 1960 would have ever thought that an Australian art museum could have a pair of Brancusi’s Birds in Space, in marble no less, or that one of Malevich’s finest Constructivist paintings, House under Construction, would glitter on a Canberra wall? Such works were simply beyond the reach of Australian acquisition funds and, as tellingly, beyond the gumption of Australian galleries to go for them.
Mollison’s boldness challenged others and made them very insecure. Who could match the NGA’s largesse? Edmund Capon, Director of the AGNSW and never one to stand behind the door, would make a succession of major purchases of modern art, starting with a crackling late Picasso of a seated figure and encompassing a monumentally scaled E.L. Kirchner and a Max Beckmann any museum in the world would be proud to hang. The NGV finally acquired a Picasso painting, the wrenching Weeping Woman, after years of satisfying itself with his prints and drawings. Queensland bought a brilliant late de Kooning from the mid-70s. Suddenly there was a range of major modern works scattered round the country.
James Mollison was not treated well by his Board. He was lumbered with a Chairman who had voted against his appointment. In 1989 after almost two decades of distinguished service as Director, the Board offered him a two-year extension to his contract. Mollison was 58 years old and could have served a further five year term. He resigned, returned to Melbourne and became Director of the NGV. This was not a happy coda. He missed the Commonwealth level of funding and manpower in a State institution. He fretted over changes made to the Gallery in Canberra and was not generous towards his successors.
An institutional account of James Mollison falls well short of doing him justice. He was to his core ‘an art-lover’, an old New York term of approbation. Earlier in his career when he was Director of Gallery A in Melbourne (1967-8), he made it the home for an emerging generation of artists of great promise—Robert Jacks, Paul Partos, Guy Stuart amongst others. They had their debut exhibitions. Mollison nurtured and encouraged them. He liked the personality of artists. That trait, looking out for the up and coming artist, never left him. He was among the first to spot and single out Tom Nicholson.
His life-long friendship with Fred and Lyn Williams was central to him. He turned to Williams for advice and support at different stages of his career. Notably Williams voted for the acquisition of Blue Poles when Leonard French voted against it. Comically, it led to such a shouting match between them on the flight back to Melbourne that TAA cautioned them and banned them for a time from future flights.
James Mollison had a prickly personality and could be abrupt and irritable but I once saw vividly his other side. When Gerard Vaughan, then Director of the NGV acquired Correggio’s Madonna and Child with St John thanks to a generous gift by Andrew Sisson, I was dumbfounded as was James Mollison, I suspect. I was in Melbourne and hurried down to the Gallery to have a look. (Correggio is the rarest, most elusive major master of the Italian High Renaissance.) It was hung on its own in a small gallery. When I arrived, there was James Mollison chatting away about the work with a couple of gallery goers, praising the work and showing unaffectedly his pleasure in Correggio’s subtle chiaroscuro, leading forms out of mysterious shadows into light and human fullness. Mollison’s delight in the painting conveyed itself warmly to complete strangers, true testimony of an art lover.
Patrick McCaughey was art critic of the Age and professor of visual arts at Monash, 1974-1981. Thereafter he spent his life in art museums: as director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Ct. and the Yale Center for British Art. He lives in Connecticut and writes.
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