Search for new NGA Director

This article first appeared in The Australian, March 28 2014

Michaela Boland ‘In search of Ron Radford’s successor at NGA’

THE most prestigious art gallery director’s job in the nation is up for grabs after Ron Radford last week signalled his intention to retire in September from Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia.

The industry has begun canvassing who might become the NGA’s fifth director, mindful that NGA chairman Allan Myers has said he would prefer to see an Australian in the role.

“It’s not to say a person who is not an Australian wouldn’t be appointed, but that person would have to know quite a lot about Australian art and have the ability quickly to develop contacts in Australia’s political and wider community,” Myers told The Australian last week.

Radford was poached from the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2004 by then arts minister Rod Kemp. A decade and a new government later, George Brandis will oversee his replacement.

Sources have told The Australian Radford was considered a quick fix and a steady pair of hands after the difficult tenure of Irishman Brian Kennedy, and that nobody expected him to stay a decade. Radford’s successor inherits a more accessible gallery with a development goal for more expansion and an $11 million Asian art scandal that still needs to be resolved.

NGA founding director James Mollison made the leap from running a regional gallery, in Ballarat, to the NGA, where he was director for 20 years. He was followed by Betty Churcher, previously director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

These days, a regional gallery director is unlikely to be considered for the Canberra position, given how complicated museum management has become. The director drew an income in the most recent financial year of $395,870, more than the current salaries of Treasurer Joe Hockey ($365,868.75) and Arts Minister Brandis ($336,599).

The NGA’s annual budget is $56m ($33m of which comes from the federal government), and the director must balance oversight of the biggest collection in the nation with the needs of the public, federal and local governments, donors and the art industry.

Experienced state gallery directors are therefore obvious choices, although Tony Ellwood isn’t likely to view a move to Canberra as a step up. Ellwood has his dream job running the National Gallery of Victoria, which last weekend recorded 750,000 visitors for its most ambitious exhibition, Melbourne Now.

Former National Museum of Australia and National Portrait Gallery director Andrew Sayers would be a safe pair of hands, although he retired from the NMA a year ago citing the desire to live in Melbourne with his wife.

Canberra-raised Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand would be a good choice on account of his experience cleaning up the looted antiquities scandal at Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.

But Brand’s failure to make a splash during his two years at the helm of Sydney’s leading gallery may not work in his favour.

Former NGV director Timothy Potts, who was last year tapped to run the Getty, would be in the mix due to his skill base, should he want to take a pay cut and return to Australia.

Venetian Stefano Carboni, who met his Australian wife during his years at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has made no secret of his frustration at the helm of the Art Gallery of WA, which badly needs building works that the state government has not indicated it will fund. Audience shortfalls last year curtailed Carboni’s ambitious and critically well-received six-part Museum of Modern Art exhibition series.

Nick Mitzevich, popular director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, could follow Radford’s path to Canberra, despite his relative youth (he is in his early 40s). There’s also AGNSW collections director Suhanya Raffel, who has not run a gallery, but does have supporters who believe she could step into the role with ease.

Some in the art world also want the board to consider adopting the structure of certain US art museums that split responsibilities into a head of collections and a head of operations, in acknowledgment of the fact that the task of running a gallery is so vast it should not be left to one person.