NGA founding director James Mollison dies

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Former prime minister Gough Whitlam and Director of the Australian National Gallery James Mollison in front of ‘Blue Poles’ in 1973.
James Mollison, the founding director of the National Gallery of Australia, has died. He was 88.

FAMOUS for persuading  former prime minister Gough Whitlam to approve the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” in 1973, (it is now worth over $100 million) James Mollison is now revered for his astute and inspired purchases for the gallery well before the actual building was opened by the Queen in 1982.

James Mollison was born in Wonthaggi, Victoria, and educated at Secondary Teachers College in Melbourne before becoming education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria, then later the director of Gallery A, Toorak and director of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

In 1969 Mollison moved to Canberra to become the executive officer for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and exhibitions officer in the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Department, with responsibilities to catalogue the national collection and to arrange exhibitions of Australian art overseas. But he became become involved in the development of the design for the NGA and was redesignated as assistant director (development) and was appointed by prime minister William McMahon as acting director of the NGA in 1971.

In 1976 the National Gallery council advertised for a permanent director and he was appointed to the position by prime minister Malcolm Fraser in 1977.

He added to the Australian paintings already held by the gallery works by giants of American Art such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

He negotiated the gift of many works by Arthur Boyd in 1975, Sunday Reed’s donation of Sidney Nolan’s “Ned Kelly” and the gift of Albert Tucker’s works to the gallery.

The current exhibition, “Lichtenstein to Warhol: The Kenneth Tyler Collection”, is possible only because of Mollison’s prescience, as the present director, Nick Mitzevich, has recently commented.

Once open, the Australia National Gallery, as it was first known, sizzled with artistic life, exhibitions and public events  and became, through his  reign, arguably the epicentre of Australian art.

Mollison retired as director of the NGA in 1990 and moved to Melbourne to become director of the National Gallery of Victoria until 1995. By then an elder statesman of the art world, his visits to the gallery he founded were low-key and he usually declined to comment on decisions made by his successors.

In June, 1992, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for “public service in the field of art particularly as director of the Australian National Gallery”.

James Mollison, March 20, 1931 – January 19, 2020





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