James Mollison developed a passion for art at a young age. He spent weekends with his mother inside the Melbourne Public Library, now the State Library of Victoria, when the building also housed the museum, the National Gallery of Victoria and the art school. At the age of 16 he asked Daryl Lindsay, the director of the gallery, for a job. Sir Lindsay casually responded: “Yes, but later”. Mollison arrived at his office the next day, ready for work, several decades before he would eventually return to the gallery as education officer and then director.
Mollison, who died in Melbourne on Sunday after a brief illness, was a director with a grand vision for the National Gallery of Australia, the new public institution in Canberra that he was invited in the 1970s to lead into the future. He would quickly come to be recognised, both at home and abroad, as a major force not only in the field of Australian art but internationally.
He came to his post in Canberra after a period of service as director at the Ballarat Gallery and later in his career would serve as the director of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1990 to 1995.
In 1968, Mollison was appointed executive officer to the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (CAAB), a position that came with a number of responsibilities, including cataloguing the national collection and advising on acquisitions of art. Initially these acquisitions focused on Australian art but by 1971, as acting director, he was advising on acquisitions from other parts of the world as well.
He wanted Australian art to be exhibited within a global context. He believed an encounter with an art object could mark a particular moment of change in art history and also in ways of seeing the world. Education through art was to be a major factor in shaping the gallery’s collection.
He recognised early that the centre of art had shifted from Europe to America, more precisely from London to New York. Conscious of the missed opportunities that Australia had endured in the past for acquiring works of European modernism, Mollison headed straight to New York in 1972 and among the early works the CAAB approved for acquisition was a landscape by William de Kooning, July 4th 1957, and Arshile Gorky’s Untitled 1944. But art from America, while ultimately a major component of the national collections, was only one part of Mollison’s extraordinary omniverous range and taste for art. In that same year he acquired Aboriginal art from Groote Island and traditional Tiwi designs from Melville Island in the Northern Territory. In 1973 his acquisitions included art from Nigeria; the black and white sculptures Bird in space c. 1931-36 by Constantin Brancusi; Elvis 1963, by Andy Warhol — and Blue Poles, by Jackson Pollock, the most controversial acquisition at the time.
In Australia the hostility to moderism was strong. This hostility was also addressed to Mollison himself, who with his acute insight had in fact acquired for Australia the work of the most important American artist of the second wave of modernism. Blue Poles was acquired for $1.3 million, a purchase approved by the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam. At the time this was a seemingly extravagant sum, but today the work is estimated at more than $400 million.
Mollison, undeterred, remained resolute in his comprehensive and holistic vision in developing the gallery’s collecting policies. He wanted to create a National Gallery of Australia with proper discrimination and rigour, one that would showcase the greatest art of every kind within its galleries and sculpture garden. He had a rare ability to set up affinities between individual works that others might have not recognised in the past.
He believed that a national gallery in the national capital needed to offer collections of art within an international context, more than simply art that could be found in state and regional galleries across Australia.
The gallery opened under his leadership in 1982. He remained as director until 1989, having worked with the support of six prime ministers, from Harold Holt to Bob Hawke.
After his long tenure in Canberra, Mollison returned to Melbourne to live with his long time companion Vincent Langford, and to take up his appointment as director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Painting and sculpture were at the centre of Mollison’s life. He was an avid reader and spent many hours as a young man reading about American art at the US information office, which in those days was situated in Collins Street in Melbourne, looking at the illustrations in the Life magazines that were also a source of information for artists such as Leonard French and Arthur Boyd. Art books were otherwise hard to find in war time Melbourne.
Mollison was born in Wonthaggi on March 20, 1931. He graduated from Secondary Teachers’ College (now part of the Faculty of Education at Melbourne University) then travelled to England as a supply teacher for three years. At this time he visited all the major European collections, and throughout his life encouraged young artists to make a similar pilgrimage.
This obituary was first published in The Australian newspaper on 21 January 2020.
Written by Grazia Gunn
Commissioned by Ashleigh Wilson
Grazia Gunn is a Melbourne writer, curator and art historian. She worked with James Mollison at the National Gallery of Australia as a curator and is currently writing an early history of the National Gallery of Australia called The Mollison Years.