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I miss you Nick. I’m not often lost for words, but I am now. Several weeks after your emotional funeral and wake I have been asked to write an obituary. Yet I know you would be as uncomfortable with the formal obituary as you were with the formal sit and tie. So I guess this is the blue denim and checked shirt version. Most people who read this will already have read fine tributes from your friends and colleagues including Joanna Mendelssohn, Alan Krell, Felicity Fenner, and Ted Snell. These appeared not jus in Sydney and Australia but New York, Glasgow, London and at least a dozen other cities around the world. I now, because friends have emailed me and told me how horrified and saddened they are at your death, at your murder – still and forever shockingly unbelievable – and that of your daughter Chloe. They’ve told me how much they loved you, and how much you touched their lives.
They would have read about your early career studying French history In Grenoble and Renaissance art in Florence, your work as a broadcaster and art critic, and of course your great work as a multiple Biennale of Sydney director, paralleling your dynamic directorship of The College of Fine Art’s (COFA’s) Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney. As far back as 1983 you were appointed director of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council. Later, you ran the gallery management course at City Art Institute (now COFA), upgrading it to one of the world’s best Master of Art Administration courses.
Reading these obituaries has been like engaging with a Cubist painting. I think we’ve all seen new facets of you that we’ve constructed onto our own single point perspective view of the Waterlow landscape. I wish I’d known about you love of music – from jazz to klezmer, as recounted by Alan Krell. I wish I’d seen your wild and joyful dancing, as described so poignantly but your partner Juliet at your funeral service. Or been able to find out more about the radio interviews you did with Yehudi Menuhin, John Williams, and Cleo Laine.
Many of the world’s leading contemporary artists and writers had their first taste of Sydney and of Australia through your biennales. And I have to thank you for that too. Your magnificent 1988 Bicentenary biennale, ‘From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940 – 1988’, was the main reason I first visited Australia. And what a show it was! Many years later when I received my Australian citizenship, I though back to that first visit and your generosity of spirit. You changed many lives for the better. I still keep going back to our bicentenary biennale and remembering it with a greater warmth than I do for any particular Venice Biennale or Documenta. It wasn’t just the individual artworks that were so good – which theyallwere – but the juxtapositions that you set up, between artists and installations, between mind and matter, and spirit.
Down in one of the wharfs you placed the Viennese Aktionist Hermann Nitsch Lang’s Ochre and Sand Dedicated to the Vanished Tribes of the Flinders Ranges and Adelaide Areabrought the centre of the country to the edge . At the far end, one of the greatest art works I have seen anywhere, the Ramingining burial poles, The Aboriginal Memorial – to hundred grave posts mirroring the two hundred years of European settlement. I have since seen tis work elsewhere, but it has never looked so good as it did where you placed it – the bright light slanting in through the dark wooden beams of the wharf. An Aboriginal ceremony took place on the day of the opening, amidst the coloured earth scattered on the floor. Music, dance and – it was all there. Djon Mundine, then art adviser to the community, gave an impassioned, historic speech, describing the two hundred log bone coffins.
A log hollowed out naturally by termites is found cleaned and painted with relevant designs like the body, amidst singing and dancing in a special camp for those completing the ritual. The bones are cleaned, painted with red ochre and place in the logs in special dances. When a set series of sons and dances has been completed the log is carried and dance into the main public camp and stood upright. It is then left.
This forest of hollow logs is like a large cemetery of dead Aboriginals, a war memorial representing tow hundred ears of white contact and black agony.
Speaking to Joanna Mendelssohn recently about how he took the idea for the burial poles to you, Mundine said ‘He understood it right away, and linked the idea of the graveposts to the crosses on the burial fields of World War 1’.
And so I remember you for bringing these great works to us Nick, as I remember the carefully thought through juxtapositions in the same biennale up at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I remember the room which contained Pierre Bonnard’s La Sieste,Balthus’s Nude with Cat,Julie Rrap’s Philosophy of the Boudoirand Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi.You had a perfect, and generously inclusive, knowledge of international contemporary art. Not only did you select the best artists but you got hold of their best works. IN this biennale alone you gave us Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Mario Merz, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Jannis Kounellis, Victor Meertens, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Dunn, Olivier Mosset, Richard Artschwager, Peter Halley, John Nixon, Katharina Fritsch, Rebecca Horn, Sarah Charlesworth, and Gerard Garouste.
Over many years you turned the Ivan Dougherty Gallery into a visual thinking machine with a strong social conscience. New art from Africa and China was as likely to be seen as new French painting or contemporary work from emerging Australian artists. And always there was the work of COFA students and staff, reflecting current research projects, personal passions, or postgraduate examinations. You were working long hours with Ian Howard, Dean of COFA, on plans for a bigger gallery that would be a world class facility. It will happen and you will be remembered for it. But no matter how busy you were it was always possible to wander in to your office, have a chat, or plan a lunchtime trip around the Sydney galleries. You never, ever, tired of looking at new art, of coming across fresh artists or difficult ideas. But you also had a tremendous sense of fun, both in life and in your curatorial work – in exhibitions such as the 2003 show ‘Larrikins in London – an Australian presence in 1960’s London’. Ted Snell, Chair of the Australian Council’s Visual Arts Board, completed the Cubist portrait for me when he wrote ‘With great sadness the international community farewells a dear friend… While his accomplishments are legion, he wore them lightly; he was always enthused by the ideas and projects of others, always gracious when offering assistance to younger artists, always supporting and promoting Australian art, and always prepared to take a stand. He was the quintessential mentor, the consummate curator, the always excitable and provocative conversationalist, a great museum director, a wily arts bureaucrat, a catalyst to every good idea and an inspiration to us all’.
But it’s the little things that keep coming back to me. The way you used to bend at the knees to come down to my height when we were in conversation at an opening or outside the art school café. There was that great laugh, of course, erupting like a volcano that had just heard a good joke. And the way you would so accurately sum up a guest speaker’s talk at the end of a lecture, and later select out parts of it for further discussion down in the pub. I tried to learn from that I miss you Nick.<p>
We all do.
Born 30 August, 1941, Hitchin, England
Died 9 November, 2009, Sydeny
Attended Harrow school, then stuidied at the University of Grenoble and the British Institute in Florence
1964: Writing for Arts Review, London
1965: First trip to Australia. Married Rosemary (Romy) O'Brian, with whom he had two sons and a daughter
1967: Became Director of Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford
1973: Appointed senior arts officer for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation
1977: Returns to Australia as lecturer at Alexander Mackie CAE (now College of Fine Arts, Univeristy of New South Wales)
1978: Appointed Director of the 1979 Biennale of Sydney 'European Dialogue'
1983: Appointed Director of the Australia Council's Visual Arts Board
1986: Directs 1986 Biennale of Sydney
1988: Directs Bicentenary Biennale
1989: Appointed Senior Lecturer in Gallery Management at City Art Institute (now COFA/UNSW)
1990: Upgraded Gallery Management course to Master of Art administration
1991: Became Director if the Ivan Dougherty Gallery at COFA/UNSW
1991-2009: Curated –and helped others curate– hundreds of exhibitions at Ivan Dougherty Gallery
1998: Wife Romy dies
2000: Chaired the international selection panel for 2000 Biennale of Sydney
Nick is survived by his partner of ten years, Juliet Darling, his two sons, Antony and Luke, his three grandchildren, and his mother in London